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Peterson, A. T., J. Soberón, R. G. Pearson, R. P. Anderson, E. Martínez-Meyer, M. Nakamura, and M. B. Araújo. 2011. Ecological Niches and Geographic Distributions. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 314 pp. ISBN-978-0-691-13686-8 (hardbound); ISBN-978-0-691-13688-2 (paper). $49.50 (paper), $80.00 (hardbound).

Eric Waltari
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1644/1545-1542-94.1.241 241-242 First published online: 15 February 2013
A. T. Peterson, J. Soberón, R. G. Pearson, R. P. Anderson, E. Martínez-Meyer, M. Nakamura, M. B. Araújo. 2011. Ecological Niches and Geographic Distributions. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 314 pp. ISBN-978-0-691-13686-8 (hardbound); ISBN-978-0-691-13688-2 (paper). $49.50 (paper), $80.00 (hardbound).

The past decade has seen the blooming of a new, interdisciplinary field in which developments in museum informatics, climate modeling, and geographic information system technologies have been combined, allowing for novel examination of species' ecological niches and distributions. These techniques, variously referred to as bioclimatic envelope modeling, habitat suitability modeling, ecological niche modeling, or species distribution modeling, have so far lacked a comprehensive guide summarizing critical concepts, practical considerations, and application examples. Although a recent book has been published that gives some introduction to these concepts (Franklin 2010), this new book by A. Townsend Peterson and 6 coauthors unparalleled in their modeling experience is a much-needed primer and synthesis of this new field.

This book is laid out in 3 sections, and begins with a thorough explanation of ecological modeling theory before stepping through the process of assembling and evaluating distribution models and describing an overview of applications. The opening theory chapters are invaluable introductions to the field. Chapter 2 may not be new material to many mammalogists, as it describes the Grinnellian and Eltonian niche concepts with their emphasis on abiotic environments and biotic interactions, respectively. Chapter 3, however, introduces an excellent heuristic device to better understand niche theory called the “BAM” diagram. Both this Venn diagram and other figures in this chapter provide much-needed clarity to what niche models are modeling and what they are not modeling, and spur thinking about species' distributions in both geographic and environmental space.

The 2nd section of the book is also invaluable in describing the process of creating and evaluating species distribution models. The 1st chapters in this section describe the input components (species occurrences and environmental data), and discuss important issues that are associated with each. As with all modeling, the adage “garbage in, garbage out” applies to this field, and the authors discuss both problems that can arise with occurrence record error or bias, and with respect to environmental data the effects of spatial resolution, extent, choice, and numbers of climate layers. Chapters 7, 8, and 9 describe the nuts and bolts of modeling algorithms. Chapter 7 details the differences among algorithms, threshold selection, and model extrapolation and transferring, whereas chapter 8 focuses on interpreting modeling results in the context of the BAM diagram described earlier, and chapter 9 describes how models are evaluated.

The applications section of the book summarizes the primary uses of niche/distribution models, discussing and highlighting studies that discover biodiversity (chapter 11), examine effects of climate change and make conservation recommendations (chapter 12), examine invading species (chapter 13) and disease transmission (chapter 14), and use modeling to examine evolutionary biology (chapter 15). This section, although very useful in breaking down the component applications, does not focus on many individual studies, as the field is progressing very quickly (and any published list would rapidly become dated), and several good reviews already exist (e.g., Elith and Leathwick 2009; Svenning et al. 2011).

Considering the sometimes bewildering array of available algorithms, tests, and applications of this new field, Peterson and his authors have provided a timely and excellent overview. In particular, I would consider the 1st several chapters of the book to be essential reading for anyone interested in biogeographic analyses incorporating niche/species distribution models. These opening chapters outline key concepts of niche theory, describe the components, and very importantly alert the reader to assumptions and limitations that may exist in the inputted occurrence and environmental data. The expert authors also make astute and noteworthy observations throughout the book. Among these are insights on omission and commission error, including the fact that the downstream use of models can change whether a modeler wishes to minimize commission error (in conservation design planning, for example) or omission errors (in biodiversity discovery applications). The authors also wisely advise understanding the underlying mechanisms behind default settings in any modeling program, and point out the very important fact that no substitute exists for a good understanding of a species' natural history and distributional ecology. The end of the book includes a glossary, which is especially helpful considering that the theory chapters introduce many specific terms that will likely require referencing.

I found very few shortcomings in this volume. Because the figures are in black and white, some maps are difficult to interpret. There are a few figures that plot points in 3 dimensions, and some of these are particularly hard to discern. Perhaps because of the large number of authors, the book makes no strong recommendations with respect to choosing particular algorithms for modeling. Similarly, it does not discuss the advantages and disadvantages of ensemble modeling, whereby multiple algorithms are averaged. The authors do, however, point out in the final summary chapter (one of several helpful overview chapters) that they believe a thorough understanding of basic modeling concepts is more important than using the most cutting-edge technique, pointing out that errors due to incorrect assumptions and incomplete knowledge of the modeling process can easily outweigh differences among specific algorithms. I agree, and believe that this book gives the field a needed conceptual foundation to help researchers avoid these errors. This book will be greatly valuable for anyone interested in this field, which intersects biogeography, ecology, and evolutionary biology. It would make an excellent guide for a graduate-level seminar or course, but is also very clearly written and is likely to be helpful for a wide range of readers, from undergraduates to specialists.

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