Species distributions are usually inferred from occurrence records. However, these records are prone to errors in spatial precision and reliability. Although influence of spatial errors has been fairly well studied, there is little information on impacts of poor reliability. Reliability of an occurrence record can be influenced by characteristics of the species, conditions during the observation, and observer's knowledge. Some studies have advocated use of anecdotal data, while others have advocated more stringent evidentiary standards such as only accepting records verified by physical evidence, at least for rare or elusive species. Our goal was to evaluate the influence of occurrence records with different reliability on species distribution models (SDMs) of a unique mammal, the white-nosed coati (Nasua narica) in the American Southwest. We compared SDMs developed using maximum entropy analysis of combined bioclimatic and biophysical variables and based on seven subsets of occurrence records that varied in reliability and spatial precision. We found that the predicted distribution of the coati based on datasets that included anecdotal occurrence records were similar to those based on datasets that only included physical evidence. Coati distribution in the American Southwest was predicted to occur in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona and was defined primarily by evenness of climate and Madrean woodland and chaparral land-cover types. Coati distribution patterns in this region suggest a good model for understanding the biogeographic structure of range margins. We concluded that occurrence datasets that include anecdotal records can be used to infer species distributions, providing such data are used only for easily-identifiable species and based on robust modeling methods such as maximum entropy. Use of a reliability rating system is critical for using anecdotal data.
Keywords: Madrean; anecdotal data; climate; ecological niche models; evidentiary standards; maximum entropy; occurrence records; species distribution models.