Do ecological niche model predictions reflect the adaptive landscape of species? : A test using Myristica malabarica Lam., an endemic tree in the Western Ghats, India.
Ecological niche models (ENM) have become a popular tool to define and predict the “ecological niche” of a species. An implicit assumption of the ENMs is that the predicted ecological niche of a species actually reflects the adaptive landscape of the species. Thus in sites predicted to be highly suitable, species would have maximum fitness compared to in sites predicted to be poorly suitable. As yet there are very few attempts to address this assumption. Here we evaluate this assumption. We used Bioclim (DIVA GIS version 7.3) and Maxent (version 3.3.2) to predict the habitat suitability of Myristica malabarica Lam., an economically important tree occurring in the Western Ghats, India. We located populations of the trees naturally occurring in different habitat suitability regimes (from highly suitable to poorly suitable) and evaluated them for their regeneration ability and genetic diversity. We also evaluated them for two plant functional traits, fluctuating asymmetry – an index of genetic homeostasis, and specific leaf weight – an index of primary productivity, often assumed to be good surrogates of fitness. We show a significant positive correlation between the predicted habitat quality and plant functional traits, regeneration index and genetic diversity of populations. Populations at sites predicted to be highly suitable had a higher regeneration and gene diversity compared to populations in sites predicted to be poor or unsuitable. Further, individuals in the highly suitable sites exhibited significantly less fluctuating asymmetry and significantly higher specific leaf weight compared to individuals in the poorly suitable habitats. These results for the first time provide an explicit test of the ENM with respect to the plant functional traits, regeneration ability and genetic diversity of populations along a habitat suitability gradient. We discuss the implication of these resultsfor designing viable species conservation and restoration programs.