Deconstructing the abundance–suitability relationship in species distribution modelling

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Aim: Local suitability estimated with species distribution models (SDMs) could indicate the maximum abundance attainable by species. Often the abundance–suitability relationship is wedge-shaped because species do not reach their maximum potential in every suitable location. We explore how SDM performance, the amount of information lost when converting continuous abundance into presence–absence data and species prevalence influence the abundance–suitability relationship. Location: Undefined. Time period: Undefined. Major taxa: Virtual species. Methods: Different abundance scenarios were simulated and converted into presence–absence maps. SDMs were parameterized using simulated predictors with different explanatory capacities. Quantile regressions were performed to characterize the abundance–suitability relationship. The strength of the wedge-shaped pattern was estimated using the difference in slopes between the 90th and 50th quantile lines, the goodness-of-fit of the 90th quantile regressions was calculated, and variation of both parameters was analysed as a function of SDM performance, prevalence and maximum abundance. Results: The degree of wedge shape was directly related to maximum abundance. It also depended on SDM quality; the higher the discrimination capacity, the less wedge-shaped the abundance–suitability relationship and higher the goodness-of-fit of the 90th quantile regressions. Prevalence exerted a significant effect on the shape of the relationship by influencing—together with maximum abundance—the extent of information loss. Main conclusions: SDMs cannot predict actual abundance even when the true determinants of abundance are included as predictors. Because presence–absence and abundance data are related but are different variables, wedge-shaped patterns are unavoidable. Discrimination capacity and prevalence affect the strength of the wedge-shaped pattern, so understanding their effects is necessary before any biological explanation is provided for the abundance–suitability relationship. Suitability maps derived from SDMs may transmit a false sense of precision at a local scale and should not be used as a perfect surrogate when abundance information is required.