Aim: To evaluate the ability of species distribution models (SDMs) to predict the spatial structure of tree species within their geographical ranges (how trees are distributed within their ranges).
Location: Continental Spain.
Methods: We used an extensive dataset consisting of c. 90,000 plots (1 plot km−2) where presence/absence data for 23 common Mediterranean and Atlantic tree species had been surveyed. We first generated SDMs relating the presence or absence of each species to a set of 16 environmental predictors, following a stepwise modelling process based on maximum likelihood methods. Superimposing spatial correlograms generated from the predictions of the SDMs over those generated from the raw data allowed a model–observation comparison of the nature, scale and intensity (level of aggregation) of spatial structure with the species ranges.
Results: SDMs predicted accurately the nature and scale of the spatial structure of trees. However, for most species, the observed intensity of spatial structure (level of aggregation of species in space) was substantially greater than that predicted by the SDMs. On average, the intensity of spatial aggregation was twice that predicted by SDMs. In addition, we also found a negative correlation between intensity of aggregation and species range size.
Main conclusions: Standard SDM predictions of spatial structure patterns differ among species. SDMs are apparently able to reproduce both the scale and intensity of species spatial structure within their ranges. However, one or more missing processes not included in SDMs results in species being substantially more aggregated in space than can be captured by the SDMs. This result adds to recent calls for a new generation of more biologically realistic SDMs. In particular, future SDMs should incorporate ecological processes that are likely to increase the intensity of spatial aggregation, such as source–sink dynamics, fine-scale environmental heterogeneity and disequilibrium.