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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 485:259-273 (2013)  -  DOI:

The utility of relative environmental suitability (RES) modelling for predicting distributions of seabirds in the North Atlantic

Hannah Watson1,5,*, Jan G. Hiddink1, Matthew J. Hobbs2, Tom M. Brereton3, Michael J. Tetley4

1School of Ocean Sciences, Bangor University, Menai Bridge, Anglesey LL59 5AB, UK
2BSGEcology, Wyastone Business Park, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth NP25 3SR, UK
3MARINElife, 12 St Andrews Road, Bridport, Dorset DT6 3BG, UK
4Ecology and Marine Sciences Consultant, Montague House, Durham DH1 2LF, UK
5Present address: Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine, Graham Kerr Building, University of Glasgow, Glasgow G12 8QQ, UK

ABSTRACT: Understanding spatial and temporal variability in the distribution of seabirds is fundamental for the conservation and management of marine ecosystems. In the absence of large-scale systematic survey data, the application of standard habitat modelling techniques to predict the at-sea distributions of seabirds at large spatial scales has been limited. In this study, we examine the utility of relative environmental suitability (RES) modelling to predict large-scale distributions and habitat suitability for 6 seabirds in the North Atlantic. An index of habitat suitability was derived by relating niche characteristics to environmental attributes. Predictive performance of models was evaluated with Receiver Operating Characteristic plots, using independent survey data from the Bay of Biscay. RES models performed significantly better than null models at predicting relative likelihood of occurrence for 5 out of 6 species. Qualitative assessment showed that model outputs corresponded well with published range maps, though a common discrepancy was the inclusion of enclosed seas in which species are not known to regularly occur. This study demonstrates that RES modelling can be used to predict large-scale habitat suitability for wide-ranging marine animals for which occurrence data are limited and biased in geographical extent. RES predictions represent simple, testable hypotheses concerning a species’ potential niche in respect of a few environmental predictors. RES modelling can help to identify biodiversity hotspots, predict effects of climate change and develop criteria for designating marine protected areas.

KEY WORDS: Ecological niche modelling · Habitat suitability · Seabird · Relative environmental suitability · Geographic range · Distribution · AquaMaps · Species distribution model · SDM

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Cite this article as: Watson H, Hiddink JG, Hobbs MJ, Brereton TM, Tetley MJ (2013) The utility of relative environmental suitability (RES) modelling for predicting distributions of seabirds in the North Atlantic. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 485:259-273.

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