Briscoe NJ, MR Kearney, CA Taylor, BA Wintle (2016) Unpacking the mechanisms captured by a correlative species distribution model to improve predictions of climate refugia. GLOBAL CHANGE BIOLOGY 22(7):2425-2439

Climate refugia are regions that animals can retreat to, persist in and potentially then expand from under changing environmental conditions. Most forecasts of climate change refugia for species are based on correlative species distribution models (SDMs) using long-term climate averages, projected to future climate scenarios. Limitations of such methods include the need to extrapolate into novel environments and uncertainty regarding the extent to which proximate variables included in the model capture processes driving distribution limits (and thus can be assumed to provide reliable predictions under new conditions). These limitations are well documented; however, their impact on the quality of climate refugia predictions is difficult to quantify. Here, we develop a detailed bioenergetics model for the koala. It indicates that range limits are driven by heat-induced water stress, with the timing of rainfall and heat waves limiting the koala in the warmer parts of its range. We compare refugia predictions from the bioenergetics model with predictions from a suite of competing correlative SDMs under a range of future climate scenarios. SDMs were fitted using combinations of long-term climate and weather extremes variables, to test how well each set of predictions captures the knowledge embedded in the bioenergetics model. Correlative models produced broadly similar predictions to the bioenergetics model across much of the species' current range - with SDMs that included weather extremes showing highest congruence. However, predictions in some regions diverged significantly when projecting to future climates due to the breakdown in correlation between climate variables. We provide unique insight into the mechanisms driving koala distribution and illustrate the importance of subtle relationships between the timing of weather events, particularly rain relative to hot-spells, in driving species-climate relationships and distributions. By unpacking the mechanisms captured by correlative SDMs, we can increase our certainty in forecasts of climate change impacts on species.