Aim Species distribution models (SDMs) have been used to address a wide range of theoretical and applied questions in the terrestrial realm, but marine-based applications remain relatively scarce. In this review, we consider how conceptual and practical issues associated with terrestrial SDMs apply to a range of marine organisms and highlight the challenges relevant to improving marine SDMs. Location We include studies from both marine and terrestrial systems that encompass many geographic locations around the globe. Methods We first performed a literature search and analysis of marine and terrestrial SDMs in ISI Web of Science to assess trends and applications. Using knowledge from terrestrial applications, we critically evaluate the application of SDMs in marine systems in the context of ecological factors (dispersal, species interactions, aggregation and ontogenetic shifts) and practical considerations (data quality, alternative modelling approaches and model validation) that facilitate or create difficulties for model application. Results The relative importance of ecological factors to be considered when applying SDMs varies among terrestrial and marine organisms. Correctly incorporating dispersal is frequently considered an important issue for terrestrial models, but because there is greater potential for dispersal in the ocean, it is often less of a concern in marine SDMs. By contrast, ontogenetic shifts and feeding have received little attention in terrestrial SDM applications, but these factors are important to many marine SDMs. Opportunities also exist for applying more advanced SDM approaches in the marine realm, including mechanistic ecophysiological models, where water balance and heat transfer equations are simpler for some marine organisms relative to their terrestrial counterparts. Main conclusions SDMs have generally been under-utilized in the marine realm relative to terrestrial applications. Correlative SDM methods should be tested on a range of marine organisms, and we suggest further development of methods that address ontogenetic shifts and feeding interactions. We anticipate developments in, and cross-fertilization between, coupled correlative and process-based SDMs, mechanistic eco-physiological SDMs, and spatial population dynamic models for climate change and species invasion applications in particular. Comparisons of the outputs of different model types will provide insight that is useful for improved spatial management of marine species. © 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.