Based on the environmental variables that associated with species’ occurrence records, ecological niche modeling (ENM) seeks to characterize environmental conditions suitable for a particular species and then identify where suitable environmental habitats are distributed in the space. Recently, ENM has been used increasingly in biological invasion, conservation biology, biological responses to climate change, disease spatial transmission, and variety aspects of ecology and evolutionary biology research. However, the theoretical background of these applications is generally poorly understood, leading to artifactual conclusions in some studies (e.g. niche differentiation during species’ invasion). In this paper we discuss the relationship between niche and geographic distribution and introduce the theoretical basis of ENM, along with relationships between the niche and ENM. Abiotic/biotic, historical and dispersal factors are three key elements that determine species’ geographic distributions at different scales. By using environmental variables derived from distributional records, ENM is based on observations that already include effects of biotic interactions, therefore ENM is used to characterize somewhere between the realized niche and potential niche, not the fundamental niche. Grinnellian and Eltonian niches are both manifested in ENM calibration, depending on the types of variables used to fit model, the natural spatial scale at which they can be measured, and the dispersal of individuals throughout the environment. Applications of ENM in understanding ecological requirements of species, discovery of new species or populations, nature reserve design, predicting potential invasion, modeling biological responses to climate change, niche conservatism, and species delimitation are discussed in this paper.
Received: 23 April 2012
Published: 04 February 2013