Solar radiation is a potentially important covariate in many wildlife habitat studies, but it is typically addressed only indirectly, using problematic surrogates like aspect or hillshade. We devised a simple solar radiation index (SRI) that combines readily available information about aspect, slope, and latitude. Our SRI is proportional to the amount of extraterrestrial solar radiation theoretically striking an arbitrarily oriented surface during the hour surrounding solar noon on the equinox. Because it derives from first geometric principles and is linearly distributed, SRI offers clear advantages over aspect-based surrogates. The SRI also is superior to hillshade, which we found to be sometimes imprecise and ill-behaved. To illustrate application of our SRI, we assessed niche separation among 3 ungulate species along a single environmental axis, solar radiation, on the northern Yellowstone winter range. We detected no difference between the niches occupied by bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) and elk (Cervus elaphus; P = 0.104), but found that mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) tended to use areas receiving more solar radiation than either of the other species (P < 0.001). Overall, our SRI provides a useful metric that can reduce noise, improve interpretability, and increase parsimony in wildlife habitat models containing a solar radiation component.
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Vol. 71 • No. 4