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Although increasingly sophisticated environmental measures are being applied to species distributions models, the focus remains on using climatic data to provide estimates of habitat suitability. Climatic tolerance estimates based on expert knowledge are available for a wide range of plants via the USDA PLANTS database. We aim to test how climatic tolerance inferred from plant distribution records relates to tolerance estimated by experts. Further, we use this information to identify circumstances when species distributions are more likely to approximate climatic tolerance.


We compiled expert knowledge estimates of minimum and maximum precipitation and minimum temperature tolerance for over 1800 conservation plant species from the ‘plant characteristics’ information in the USDA PLANTS database. We derived climatic tolerance from distribution data downloaded from the Global Biodiversity and Information Facility (GBIF) and corresponding climate from WorldClim. We compared expert-derived climatic tolerance to empirical estimates to find the difference between their inferred climate niches (ΔCN), and tested whether ΔCN was influenced by growth form or range size.


Climate niches calculated from distribution data were significantly broader than expert-based tolerance estimates (Mann-Whitney p values << 0.001). The average plant could tolerate 24 mm lower minimum precipitation, 14 mm higher maximum precipitation, and 7° C lower minimum temperatures based on distribution data relative to expert-based tolerance estimates. Species with larger ranges had greater ΔCN for minimum precipitation and minimum temperature. For maximum precipitation and minimum temperature, forbs and grasses tended to have larger ΔCN while grasses and trees had larger ΔCN for minimum precipitation.


Our results show that distribution data are consistently broader than USDA PLANTS experts’ knowledge and likely provide more robust estimates of climatic tolerance, especially for widespread forbs and grasses. These findings suggest that widely available expert-based climatic tolerance estimates underrepresent species’ fundamental niche and likely fail to capture the realized niche.






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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.


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NASA’s Biodiversity and Ecological Forecasting Program (NESSF: 15-EARTH15F-133); the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Massachusetts Agricultural Experiment Station, the Department of Environmental Conservation under Project No. MAS00016; UMass SOAR Fund