Map of relative difference in species richness estimated from the TOTAL vs RECENT dataset for each of the bioregions of South Africa from Shifted distribution baselines: neglecting long-term biodiversity records risks overlooking potentially suitable habitat for conservation management

Setting appropriate conservation measures to halt the loss of biodiversity requires a good understanding of species' habitat requirements and potential distribution. Recent (past few decades) ecological data are typically used to estimate and understand species’ ecological niches. However, historical local extinctions may have truncated species–environment relationships, resulting in a biased perception of species' habitat preferences. This may result in incorrect assessments of the area potentially available for their conservation. Incorporating long-term (centuries-old) occurrence records with recent records may provide better information on species–environment relationships and improve the modelling and understanding of habitat suitability. We test whether neglecting long-term occurrence records leads to an underestimation of species’ historical niche and potential distribution and identify which species are more vulnerable to this effect. We compare outputs of species distribution models and niche hypervolumes built using recent records only with those built using both recent and long-term (post-1500) records, for a set of 34 large mammal species in South Africa. We find that, while using recent records only is adequate for some species, adding historical records in the analyses impacts estimates of the niche and habitat suitability for 12 species (34%) in our dataset, and that this effect is significantly higher for carnivores. These results show that neglecting long-term biodiversity records in spatial analyses risks misunderstanding, and generally underestimating, species' niches, which in turn may lead to ill-informed management decisions, with significant implications for the effectiveness of conservation efforts.This article is part of the discussion meeting issue ‘The past is a foreign country: how much can the fossil record actually inform conservation?’.