How many predictors in species distribution models at the landscape scale? Land use versus LiDAR-derived canopy height

G.F. Ficetola, A. Bonardi, C.A. Mücher, N.L.M. Gilissen, E. Padoa-Schioppa

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

28 Citations (Scopus)


At the local spatial scale, land-use variables are often employed as predictors for ecological niche models (ENMs). Remote sensing can provide additional synoptic information describing vegetation structure in detail. However, there is limited knowledge on which environmental variables and how many of them should be used to calibrate ENMs. We used an information-theoretic approach to compare the performance of ENMs using different sets of predictors: (1) a full set of land-cover variables (seven, obtained from the LGN6 Dutch National Land Use Database); (2) a reduced set of land-cover variables (three); (3) remotely sensed laser data optimized to measure vegetation structure and canopy height (LiDAR, light detection and ranging); and (4) combinations of land cover and LiDAR. ENMs were built for a set of bird species in the Veluwe Natura 2000 site (the Netherlands); for each species, 26–214 records were available from standardized monitoring. Models were built using MaxEnt, and the best performing models were identified using the Akaike’s information criterion corrected for small sample size (AICc). For 78% of the bird species analysed, LiDAR data were included in the best AICc model. The model including LiDAR only was the best performing one in most cases, followed by the model including a reduced set of land-use variables. Models including many land-use variables tended to have limited support. The number of variables included in the best model increased for species with more presence records. For all species with 33 records or less, the best model included LiDAR only. Models with many land-use variables were only selected for species with >150 records. Test area under the curve (AUC) scores ranged between 0.72 and 0.92. Remote sensing data can thus provide regional information useful for modelling at the local and landscape scale, particularly when presence records are limited. ENMs can be optimized through the selection of the number and identity of environmental predictors. Few variables can be sufficient if presence records are limited in number. Synoptic remote sensing data provide a good measure of vegetation structure and may allow a better representation of the available habitat, being extremely useful in this case. Conversely, a larger number of predictors, including land-use variables, can be useful if a large number of presence records are available.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1723-1739
JournalInternational Journal of Geographical Information Science
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • mapping forest structure
  • airborne lidar
  • habitat
  • vegetation
  • availability
  • environments
  • biodiversity
  • probability
  • explanation
  • localities


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