Identifying Vulnerable Species and Adaptation Strategies in the Southern Sierra of California Using Historical Resurveys

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Santos, Maria J., Moritz, Craig, and Thorne, James H.
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Small mammals have shifted their elevation ranges in the Sierra Nevada. We questioned
whether this shift can be linked to changes in habitat distribution, whether changes in
population abundance match range dynamics, and how the shift affects predictions of future
small mammal distribution. We merged data from mammal records of the Grinnell Resurvey
Project, vegetation from the Wieslander Vegetation Type Maps and CALVEG and National
Park Service, and downscaled PRISM climate data to meet these objectives.
We found that species that expanded their elevational distribution range tracked suitable
habitats, and their ecological niche broadened over time. Species whose elevation range has
contracted did not track suitable habitats, and their ecological niche remained constant.
Species that tracked their habitat dynamics showed an average decrease in abundance at the
leading edge of their distribution range, whereas species that did not track their habitat
dynamics showed either no change or increase in abundance at the lagging edge of their
distribution range over time.
Life zone (vegetation types across elevation bands as a response to gradients in temperature
and precipitation) and climate models performed better than vegetation models when changes
over 80 years were analyzed, suggesting that species are responding more rapidly to climate
than to vegetation change. Nonetheless, in all of these models, expanding species were harder
to model as their ecological niche shifted, whereas contracting species produced more reliable
These results imply that modeling future distributions of sensitive species will vary according to
the direction and magnitude of their sensitivity to both climate and vegetation changes.
The results of this analysis highlight the need to determine these species life history traits,
habitat preferences and temporal dynamics, in order to identify which species are positively and
negatively sensitive, and which are relatively insensitive to future climate and land cover change.


Santos, M. J., C. Moritz, and J. H. Thorne. 2012. Identifying Vulnerable Species and Adaptation Strategies in the Southern Sierra of California Using Historical Resurveys. California Energy Commission. Retrieved from