Predicting Environmental Suitability for a Rare and Threatened Species (Lao Newt, Laotriton laoensis) Using Validated Species Distribution Models

20 Apr 2021 Authors: 

The Lao newt (Laotriton laoensis) is a recently described species currently known only from northern Laos. Little is known about the species, but it is threatened as a result of overharvesting. We integrated field survey results with climate and altitude data to predict the geographic distribution of this species using the niche modeling program Maxent, and we validated these predictions by using interviews with local residents to confirm model predictions of presence and absence. The results of the validated Maxent models were then used to characterize the environmental conditions of areas predicted suitable for L. laoensis. Finally, we overlaid the resulting model with a map of current national protected areas in Laos to determine whether or not any land predicted to be suitable for this species is coincident with a national protected area. We found that both area under the curve (AUC) values and interview data provided strong support for the predictive power of these models, and we suggest that interview data could be used more widely in species distribution niche modeling. Our results further indicated that this species is mostly likely geographically restricted to high altitude regions (i.e., over 1,000 m elevation) in northern Laos and that only a minute fraction of suitable habitat is currently protected. This work thus emphasizes that increased protection efforts, including listing this species as endangered and the establishment of protected areas in the region predicted to be suitable for L. laoensis, are urgently needed.