Niche Modelling

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The oceans cover 70% of the surface of this planet and is important for much of our climate and resources. But, for many people, the ocean is synonymous with beaches, blue waters and enigmatic organisms such as corals, whales and dolphins. Largely forgotten are the many thousands of other organisms that make up the amazing biodiversity of the oceans. Since the ocean is a three dimensional medium, with the seafloor inaccessible to only divers, remotely operated vehicles or submarines, it is very difficult for people to imagine, never mind find many of these amazing organisms. This is where habitat suitability modelling can be used, as a cost-effective method to develop maps of where species may be found.

These models have been used for many years, and all are based around the concept of a niche. For example, humans have a niche, but through technology have managed to expand beyond it. We require oxygen to breathe, tolerate a range of temperatures and are a land-dwelling organism. Other species have different requirements, and may be adapted to exist in cold or warm areas. Many species have evolved to tolerate certain conditions, and these can be fairly restrictive. For example, tropical corals are found in a very defined temperature band, outside of this band, corals are unable to tolerate the conditions and may have reduced surivorship, or be unable to compete with other organisms.

Habitat suitability modelling is known by several terms for example, it can be described as “predictive modelling”, “niche modelling”, “species distribution modelling” amongst other names. It is a broad description of a variety of statistical approaches that can be used to better understand the niche of a species based on environmental data, in turn this knowledge can be extrapolated to new areas to provide an idea of where a particular species may be found. However, this does not mean that the species will be found there, but it gives a pretty good idea and can be used to understand distribution patterns and even used to understand how organisms may be affected by climate change. There are limitations though that must be considered if you decide to use these kinds of models, read on in several of our manuscripts to learn more.

[edit] What are we doing with niche models?

Essentially we’re trying to develop niche models as a method for improving our knowledge of where deep-sea species are found. In particular, we have focussed on cold-water corals. These organisms form reefs in the deep ocean and are examples of highly enigmatic, conservation priority species. However, we just don’t know where many of them are, niche models represent one tool that can help guide future conservation work, target research cruises and help us understand the environmental drivers of these habitat forming organisms.

[edit] Key references from our lab

Shucksmith, R., Jones, N. H., Stoyle, G. W., Davies, A., & Dicks, E. F. (2008). Abundance and distribution of the harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) on the north coast of Anglesey, Wales, UK. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 89(05), 1051. doi:10.1017/S0025315408002579.

De Mol, B., Querol, N., Davies, A., Schafer, A., Foglini, F., Gonzales-Mirelis, G., … Canals, M. (2009). HERMES-GIS: A Tool Connecting Scientists and Policy-Makers. Oceanography, 22(1), 144–153. doi:10.5670/oceanog.2009.14

Davies, A. J., Wisshak, M., Orr, J. C., & Murray Roberts, J. (2008). Predicting suitable habitat for the cold-water coral Lophelia pertusa (Scleractinia). Deep Sea Research Part I: Oceanographic Research Papers,55(8), 1048–1062. doi:10.1016/j.dsr.2008.04.010

Davies, A. J., & Guinotte, J. M. (2011). Global Habitat Suitability for Framework-Forming Cold-Water Corals.PLoS ONE, 6(4), e18483. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0018483

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