The complexity of species' response to climate change

A study showing how temperature alone cannot predict climate-induced distribution shift patterns

GBIF-mediated data resources used : 4,733 species occurrences
White alder (Alnus rhombifolia)

White alder (Alnus rhombifolia) by kennyhan via iNaturalist. Photo licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0.

Many studies have predicted species distributions responding to climate warming by shifting pole-wards or towards higher elevation. In this study, researchers investigated 293 plant species in western North America to determine if distributions have shifted as expected in the past 40 years, and to gain knowledge into future responses to further climatic changes. Using species occurrences from several sources including GBIF combined with historic climate data, the researchers find that overall, plants were equally likely to shift upward as they were downward, but also that regional differences exist. Species occurring in multiple regions followed regional patterns rather than species-specific patterns. Temperature alone could not explain the direction of distribution shifts, and the researchers found that combining the effect of summer warming with seasonal precipitation change proved a better predictor, highlighting the complexity of species responding to changing climates.

Harsch MA and HilleRisLambers J (2016) Climate Warming and Seasonal Precipitation Change Interact to Limit Species Distribution Shifts across Western North America. PLOS ONE. Public Library of Science (PLoS) 11(7): e0159184. Available at doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0159184.