Disparities between observed and predicted impacts of climate change on winter bird assemblages

Frank A. La Sorte, Tien Ming Lee, Hamish Wilman, Walter Jetz


Understanding how climate change affects the structure and function of communities is critical for gauging its full impact on biodiversity. To date, community-level changes have been poorly documented, owing, in part, to the paucity of long-term datasets. To circumvent this, the use of ‘space-for-time’ substitution—the forecasting of temporal trends from spatial climatic gradients—has increasingly been adopted, often with little empirical support. Here we examine changes from 1975 to 2001 in three community attributes (species richness, body mass and occupancy) for 404 assemblages of terrestrial winter avifauna in North America containing a total of 227 species. We examine the accuracy of space-for-time substitution and assess causal associations between community attributes and observed changes in annual temperature using a longitudinal study design. Annual temperature and all three community attributes increased over time. The trends for the three community attributes differed significantly from the spatially derived predictions, although richness showed broad congruence. Correlations with trends in temperature were found with richness and body mass. In the face of rapid climate change, applying space-for-time substitution as a predictive tool could be problematic with communities developing patterns not reflected by spatial ecological associations.


    • Received January 29, 2009.
    • Accepted May 19, 2009.
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