Evolutionary dynamics of abiotic ecological niches across phylogenetic history can shed light on large-scale biogeographic patterns, macroevolutionary rate shifts, and the relative ability of lineages to respond to global change. An unresolved question is how best to represent and reconstruct evolution of these complex traits at coarse spatial scales through time. Studies have approached this question by integrating phylogenetic comparative methods with niche estimates inferred from correlative and other models. However, methods for estimating niches often produce incomplete characterizations, as they are inferred from present-day distributions that may be limited in full expression of the fundamental ecological niche by biotic interactions, dispersal limitations, and the existing set of environmental conditions. Here, we test whether incomplete niche characterizations inherent in most estimates of species' niches bias phylogenetic reconstructions of niche evolution, using simulations of virtual species with known niches. Results establish that incompletely characterized niches inflate estimates of evolutionary change and lead to error in ancestral state reconstructions. Our analyses also provide a potential mechanism to explain the frequent observation that maximum thermal tolerances are more conserved than minimum thermal tolerances: populations and species experience more spatial variation in minimum temperature than in maximum temperature across their distributions and, consequently, may experience stronger diversifying selection for cold tolerance.