Species distribution models (SDMs) are widely used to predict the occurrence of species. Because SDMs generally use presence-only data, validation of the predicted distribution and assessing model accuracy is challenging. Model performance depends on both sample size and species’ prevalence, being the fraction of the study area occupied by the species. Here, we present a novel method using simulated species to identify the minimum number of records required to generate accurate SDMs for taxa of different pre-defined prevalence classes. We quantified model performance as a function of sample size and prevalence and found model performance to increase with increasing sample size under constant prevalence, and to decrease with increasing prevalence under constant sample size. The area under the curve (AUC) is commonly used as a measure of model performance. However, when applied to presence-only data it is prevalence-dependent and hence not an accurate performance index. Testing the AUC of an SDM for significant deviation from random performance provides a good alternative. We assessed the minimum number of records required to obtain good model performance for species of different prevalence classes in a virtual study area and in a real African study area. The lower limit depends on the species’ prevalence with absolute minimum sample sizes as low as 3 for narrow-ranged and 13 for widespread species for our virtual study area which represents an ideal, balanced, orthogonal world. The lower limit of 3, however, is flawed by statistical artefacts related to modelling species with a prevalence below 0.1. In our African study area lower limits are higher, ranging from 14 for narrow-ranged to 25 for widespread species. We advocate identifying the minimum sample size for any species distribution modelling by applying the novel method presented here, which is applicable to any taxonomic clade or group, study area or climate scenario.
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