Birds track their Grinnellian niche through a century of climate change

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Tingley, M. W., Monahan, W. B., Beissinger, S. R., and Moritz, C.
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In the face of environmental change, species can evolve new physiological tolerances to cope with altered climatic conditions or move spatially to maintain existing physiological associations with particular climates that define each species' climatic niche. When environmental change occurs over short temporal and large spatial scales, vagile species are expected to move geographically by tracking their climatic niches through time. Here, we test for evidence of niche tracking in bird species of the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, focusing on 53 species resurveyed nearly a century apart at 82 sites on four elevational transects. Changes in climate and bird distributions resulted in focal species shifting their average climatological range over time. By comparing the directions of these shifts relative to the centroids of species' range-wide climatic niches, we found that 48 species (90.6%) tracked their climatic niche. Analysis of niche sensitivity on an independent set of occurrence data significantly predicted the temperature and precipitation gradients tracked by species. Furthermore, in 50 species (94.3%), site-specific occupancy models showed that the position of each site relative to the climatic niche centroid explained colonization and extinction probabilities better than a null model with constant probabilities. Combined, our results indicate that the factors limiting a bird species' range in the Sierra Nevada in the early 20th century also tended to drive changes in distribution over time, suggesting that climatic models derived from niche theory might be used successfully to forecast where and how to conserve species in the face of climate change.


Tingley, M. W., W. B. Monahan, S. R. Beissinger, and C. Moritz. 2009. Birds track their Grinnellian niche through a century of climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106:19637–19643. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0901562106.