Protected area (PA) extent has increased significantly over the last 150 years globally, but it is yet unclear whether progress in expanding coverage has been accompanied by improved performance in ecological representation. Here, we explore temporal trends in the performance of PA networks in representing > 16,000 vertebrate and plant species in tropical Andean countries based on species bioclimatic niche modelling. We use a randomization analysis to assess whether representation gains over time (1937–2015) are the expected consequence of increasing the overall area of the network or the result of better designed networks. We also explore the impact of climate change on protected-area representation based on projected species distributions in 2070. We found that PAs added in the last three to four decades were better at representing species diversity than random additions overall. Threatened species, amphibians and reptiles are the exception. Species representation is projected to decrease across PAs under climate change, although PA expansions over the last decade (2006–2015) better represented species' future bioclimatic niches than did sites selected at random for most evaluated groups. These findings indicate an unbalanced representation across taxa, and raises concern over under-represented groups, including threatened species, and species’ representation under climate change scenarios. However, they also suggest that decisions related to locating protected areas have become more strategic in recent decades and illustrate that indicators tracking representativeness of networks are crucial in PA monitoring frameworks.