Mechanistic and Correlative Models of Ecological Niches

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The suite of factors that drives where and under what conditions a species occurs has become the focus of intense research interest. Three general categories of methods have emerged by which researchers address questions in this area: mechanistic models of species’ requirements in terms of environmental conditions that are based on first principles of biophysics and physiology, correlational models based on environmental associations derived from analyses of geographic occurrences of species, and process-based simulations that estimate occupied distributional areas and associated environments from assumptions about niche dimensions and dispersal abilities. We review strengths and weaknesses of these sets of approaches, and identify significant advantages and disadvantages of each. Rather than identifying one or the other as ‘better,’ we suggest that researchers take great care to use the method best-suited to each specific research question, and be conscious of the weaknesses of any method, such that inappropriate interpretations are avoided.

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