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In this paper we aim to investigate the problems and potentialities of species distribution modeling (SDM) as a tool for conservation planning and policy development and implementation in tropical regions. We reviewed 123 studies published between 1995 and 2007 in five of the leading journals in ecology and conservation, and examined two tropical case studies in which distribution modeling is currently being applied to support conservation planning. We also analyzed the characteristics of data typically used for fitting models within the specific context of modeling tree species distribution in Central America. The results showed that methodological papers outnumbered reports of SDMs being used in an applied context for setting conservation priorities, particularly in the tropics. Most applications of SDMs were in temperate regions and biased towards certain organisms such as mammals and birds. Studies from tropical regions were less likely to be validated than those from temperate regions. Unpublished data from two major tropical case studies showed that those species that are most in need of conservation actions, namely those that are the rarest or most threatened, are those for which SDM is least likely to be useful. We found that only 15% of the tree species of conservation concern in Central America could be reliably modelled using data from a substantial source (Missouri Botanical Garden VAST database). Lack of data limits model validation in tropical areas, further restricting the value of SDMs. We concluded that SDMs have a great potential to support biodiversity conservation in the tropics, by supporting the development of conservation strategies and plans, identifying knowledge gaps, and providing a tool to examine the potential impacts of environmental change. However, for this potential to be fully realized, problems of data quality and availability need to be overcome. Weaknesses in current biological datasets need to be systematically addressed, by increasing collection of field survey data, improving data sharing and increasing structural integration of data sources. This should include use of distributed databases with common standards, referential integrity, and rigorous quality control. Integration of data management with SDMs could significantly add value to existing data resources by improving data quality control and enabling knowledge gaps to be identified.
|Journal||Tropical conservation science|
|Publication status||Published - 2009|