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Not to put too fine a point on it - does increasing precision of geographic referencing improve species distribution models for a wide-ranging migratory bat?

September 3, 2015

Bat specimens held in natural history museum collections can provide insights into the distribution of species. However, there are several important sources of spatial error associated with natural history specimens that may influence the analysis and mapping of bat species distributions. We analyzed the importance of geographic referencing and error correction in species distribution modeling (SDM) using occurrence records of hoary bats (Lasiurus cinereus). This species is known to migrate long distances and is a species of increasing concern due to fatalities documented at wind energy facilities in North America. We used 3,215 museum occurrence records collected from 1950–2000 for hoary bats in North America. We compared SDM performance using five approaches: generalized linear models, multivariate adaptive regression splines, boosted regression trees, random forest, and maximum entropy models. We evaluated results using three SDM performance metrics (AUC, sensitivity, and specificity) and two data sets: one comprised of the original occurrence data, and a second data set consisting of these same records after the locations were adjusted to correct for identifiable spatial errors. The increase in precision improved the mean estimated spatial error associated with hoary bat records from 5.11 km to 1.58 km, and this reduction in error resulted in a slight increase in all three SDM performance metrics. These results provide insights into the importance of geographic referencing and the value of correcting spatial errors in modeling the distribution of a wide-ranging bat species. We conclude that the considerable time and effort invested in carefully increasing the precision of the occurrence locations in this data set was not worth the marginal gains in improved SDM performance, and it seems likely that gains would be similar for other bat species that range across large areas of the continent, migrate, and are habitat generalists.