Niche models tell half the story: spatial context and life-history traits influence species responses to global change

Aim While niche models are typically used to assess the vulnerability of species to climate change, they have been criticized for their limited assessment of threats other than climate change. We attempt to evaluate this limitation by combining niche models with life-history models to investigate the relative influence of climate change and a range of fire regimes on the viability of a long-lived plant population. Specifically, we investigate whether range shift due to climate change is a greater threat to an obligate seeding fire-prone shrub than altered fire frequency and how these two threatening processes might interact. Location Australian sclerophyll woodland and heathland. Methods The study species is Leucopogon setiger, an obligate seeding fire-prone shrub. A spatially explicit stochastic matrix model was constructed for this species and linked with a dynamic niche model and fire risk functions representing a suite of average fire return intervals. We compared scenarios with a variety of hypothetical patches, a patch framework based upon current habitat suitability and one with dynamic habitat suitability based on climate change scenarios A1FI and A2. Results Leucopogon setiger was found to be sensitive to fire frequency, with shorter intervals reducing expected minimum abundances (EMAs). Spatial decoupling of fires across the landscape reduced the vulnerability of the species to shortened fire frequencies. Shifting habitat, while reducing EMAs, was less of a threat to the species than frequent fire. Main conclusions Altered fire regime, in particular more frequent fires relative to the historical regime, was predicted to be a strong threat to this species, which may reflect a vulnerability of obligate seeders in general. Range shifts induced by climate change were a secondary threat when habitat reductions were predicted. Incorporating life-history traits into habitat suitability models by linking species distribution models with population models allowed for the population-level evaluation of multiple stressors that affect population dynamics and habitat, ultimately providing a greater understanding of the impacts of global change than would be gained by niche models alone. Further investigations of this type could elucidate how particular bioecological factors can affect certain types of species under global change.