Aim: Understanding what constituted species’ ranges prior to large-scale human influence, and how past climate and land use change have affected range dynamics, provides conservation planners with important insights into how species may respond to future environmental change. Our aim here was to reconstruct the Holocene range of European bison (Bison bonasus) by combining a time-calibrated species distribution models (SDM) with a dynamic vegetation model.
Method: We used European bison occurrences from the Holocene in a maximum entropy model to assess bison range dynamics during the last 8000 years. As predictors, we used bioclimatic variables and vegetation reconstructions from the generalized dynamic vegetation model LPJ-GUESS. We compared our range maps with maps of farmland and human population expansion to identify the main species range constraints.
Results: The Holocene distribution of European bison was mainly determined by vegetation patterns, with bison thriving in both broadleaved and coniferous forests, as well as by mean winter temperature. The heartland of European bison was in Central and Eastern Europe, whereas suitable habitat in Western Europe was scarce. While environmentally suitable regions were overall stable, the expansion of settlements and farming severely diminished available habitat.
Main conclusions: European bison habitat preferences may be wider than previously assumed, and our results suggest that the species had a more eastern and northern distribution than previously reported. Vegetation and climate transformation during the Holocene did not affect the bison’s range substantially. Conversely, human population growth and the spread of farming resulted in drastic bison habitat loss and fragmentation, likely reaching a tipping point during the last 1000 years. Combining SDM and dynamic vegetation models can improve range reconstructions and projections, and thus help to identify resilient conservation strategies for endangered species.