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Frontiers of Biogeography

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A tale of two niches: methods, concepts, and evolution


Being snapshots in time, species ranges may fall short of representing all of the geographic or environmental space that they are able to occupy. This has important implications for niche studies yet most comparative studies overlook the transient nature of species distributions and assume that they are at equilibrium. We review the methods most widely used for niche comparisons today and suggest a modified framework to describe and compare niches based on snapshot species range data. First, we introduce a new environmental space-based Niche Equivalence Statistic to test niche similarity between two species, which explicitly incorporates the spatial distribution of environments and their availability into statistical tests. We also introduce a new Background Statistic to measure the ability of this Niche Equivalence Statistic to detect differences based on the available environmental-space. These metrics enable fair comparisons between different geographies when the ranges of species are out of equilibrium. Based on distinct parameterizations of the new Equivalence and Background statistics, we then propose a Niche Divergence Test and a Niche Overlap Test, which allow assessment of whether differences between species emerge from true niche divergences. These methods are implemented in a new R package, ‘humboldt’ and applied to simulated species with pre-defined niches. The new methods improve accuracy of niche similarity and associated tests – consistently outperforming other tests. We show that the quantification of niche similarity should be performed only in environmental space, which is less sensitive than geographic space to the spatial abundance of key environmental variables. Further, our methods characterize the relationships between non-analogous and analogous climates in the species’ distributions, something not available previously. These improvements allow assessment of whether the different environmental spaces occupied by two taxa emerge from true niche evolution, as opposed to differences in life history and biological interactors, or differences in the variety and configuration of environments accessible to them.

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