The most common approach to predicting how species ranges and ecological functions will shift with climate change is to construct correlative species distribution models (SDMs). These models use a species’ climatic distribution to determine currently suitable areas for the species and project its potential distribution under future climate scenarios. A core, rarely tested, assumption of SDMs is that all populations will respond equivalently to climate. Few studies have examined this assumption, and those that have rarely dissect the reasons for intraspecific differences. Focusing on the arctic‐alpine cushion plant Silene acaulis, we compared predictive accuracy from SDMs constructed using the species’ full global distribution with composite predictions from separate SDMs constructed using subpopulations defined either by genetic or habitat differences. This is one of the first studies to compare multiple ways of constructing intraspecific‐level SDMs with a species‐level SDM. We also examine the contested relationship between relative probability of occurrence and species performance or ecological function, testing if SDM output can predict individual performance (plant size) and biotic interactions (facilitation). We found that both genetic‐ and habitat‐informed SDMs are considerably more accurate than a species‐level SDM, and that the genetic model substantially differs from and outperforms the habitat model. While SDMs have been used to infer population performance and possibly even biotic interactions, in our system these relationships were extremely weak. Our results indicate that individual subpopulations may respond differently to climate, although we discuss and explore several alternative explanations for the superior performance of intraspecific‐level SDMs. We emphasize the need to carefully examine how to best define intraspecific‐level SDMs as well as how potential genetic, environmental, or sampling variation within species ranges can critically affect SDM predictions. We urge caution in inferring population performance or biotic interactions from SDM predictions, as these often‐assumed relationships are not supported in our study.
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