Sensitivity to climate change for two reptiles at the Mojave–Sonoran Desert interface

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Barrows, C.W.
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The high temperatures and extended droughts that characterize habitat for desert-living reptiles may already approach their physiological tolerances and so could put them at risk due to climate change. Here I examined climate change sensitivity for desert tortoises, Gopherus agassizii, and common chuckwallas, Sauromalus ater, two large-bodied reptiles that occur across the Mojave–Sonoran Desert interface. I employed the Mahalanobis D2 statistic to model their niche spaces and then assessed climate-change sensitivity by altering climate variables along a gradient of increasing temperature and decreasing precipitation. While shifting climate variables, I held terrain and soils variables that otherwise define these species’ preferred habitat constant, providing a more realistic prediction of available niche space. Both reptiles’ modeled niches responded to climate change by shifting to higher elevations and increasingly away from their Sonoran Desert distribution. At moderate predictions of climate change (+2 °C, −50 mm precipitation) desert tortoises’ suitable habitat was reduced by nearly 88% in the Sonoran Desert portions my study area, and nearly 66% in the Mojave Desert regions. Under the same scenario chuckwallas lost nearly 92%, but increased 120% respectively. Within the context of climate change potential increases in drought frequency appear to present the greater challenge for these species.


Barrows, C. W. 2011. Sensitivity to climate change for two reptiles at the Mojave–Sonoran Desert interface. Journal of Arid Environments 75:629–635.