Many studies have investigated the possible impact of climate change on the distributions of plant species. In the present study, we test whether the concept of potential distribution is able to effectively predict the impact of climate warming on plant species. Using spatial simulation models, we related the actual (current species distribution), potential (modelled distribution assuming unlimited dispersal) and predicted (modelled distribution accounting for wind-limited seed dispersal) distributions of two plant species under several warming scenarios in the Sagarmatha National Park (Nepal). We found that the two predicted distributions were, respectively, seven and nine times smaller than the potential ones. Under a +3 8C scenario, both species would likely lose their actual and predicted distributions, while their potential distributions would remain partially safe. Our results emphasize that the predicted distributions of plant species may diverge to a great extent from their potential distributions, particularly in mountain areas, and predictions of species preservation in the face of climate warming based on the potential distributions of plant species are at risk of producing overoptimistic projections. We conclude that the concept of potential distribution is likely to lead to limited or inefficacious conservation of plant species due to its excessively optimistic projections of species preservation. More robust strategies should utilize concepts such as ‘‘optimal reintroduction’’, which maximizes the benefit–cost ratio of conservation activities by limiting reintroduction efforts to suitable areas that could not otherwise be reached by a species; moreover, such strategies maximize the probability of species establishment by excluding areas that will be endangered under future climate scenarios.
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