Applications of Ecological Niche Modeling for Species Delimitation: A Review and Empirical Evaluation Using Day Geckos (Phelsuma) from Madagascar.

Systematic Biology 56 (6): 907 - 923. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/10635150701775111


Although the systematic utility of ecological niche modeling is generally well known (e.g., concerning the recognition and discovery of areas of endemism for biogeographic analyses), there has been little discussion of applications concerning species delimitation, and to date, no empirical evaluation has been conducted. However, ecological niche modeling can provide compelling evidence for allopatry between populations, and can also detect divergent ecological niches between candidate species. Here we present results for two taxonomically problematic groups of Phelsuma day geckos from Madagascar, where we integrate ecological niche modeling with mitochondrial DNA and morphological data to evaluate species limits. Despite relatively modest levels of genetic and morphological divergence, for both species groups we find divergent ecological niches between closely related species and parapatric ecological niche models. Niche models based on the new species limits provide a better fit to the known distribution than models based upon the combined (lumped) species limits. Based on these results, we elevate three subspecies of Phelsuma madagascariensis (P. m. madagascariensis, P. m. grandis, and P. m. kochi) to species rank and describe a new species of Phelsuma from the P. dubia species group. Our phylogeny continues to support a major endemic radiation of Phelsuma in Madagascar, with dispersals to Pemba Island and the Mascarene Islands. We conclude that ecological niche modeling offers great potential for species delimitation, especially for taxonomic groups exhibiting low vagility and localized endemism and for groups with more poorly known distributions. In particular, niche modeling should be especially sensitive for detecting recent parapatric speciation driven by ecological divergence, when the environmental gradients driving speciation are represented within the ecological niche models.

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