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Elevated surface temperature depresses survival of banner-tailed kangaroo rats: will climate change cook a desert icon?

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Modest increases in global temperature have been implicated in causing population extirpations and range shifts in taxa inhabiting colder environs and in ectotherms whose thermoregulation is more closely tied to environmental conditions. Many arid-adapted endotherms already experience conditions at their physiological limits, so it is conceivable that they could be similarly affected by warming temperatures. We explored how climatic variables might influence the apparent survival of the banner-tailed kangaroo rat (Dipodomys spectabilis), a rodent endemic to the Chihuahuan Desert of North America and renowned for its behavioral and physiological adaptations to arid environments. Relative variable weight, strength of variable relationships, and other criteria indicated that summer, diurnal land surface temperature (SD_LST) was the primary environmental driver of apparent survival in these arid-adapted rodents. Higher temperatures had a negative effect on apparent survival, which ranged from 0.15 (SE = 0.04) for subadults to 0.50 (SE = 0.07) for adults. Elevated SD_LST may negatively influence survival through multiple pathways, including increased water loss and energy expenditure that could lead to chronic stress and/or hyperthermia that could cause direct mortality. Land surface temperatures are predicted to increase by as much 6.5°C by 2099, reducing apparent survival of adults to ~0.15 in some regions of the species’ range, possibly causing a shift in their distribution. The relationship between SD_LST and survival suggests a mechanism whereby physiological tolerances are exceeded resulting in a reduction to individual fitness that may ultimately cause a shift in the species’ range over time.

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The International Arid Lands Consortium, T&E, Inc., and the New Mexico State University Agricultural Experiment Station supported this research. We thank V. Mathis and A. Edelman for supplying some data. We extend our sincerest thank you to all of the land managers, both public and private, who allowed us access to their property; without your cooperation this study would not have been possible. T. Atwood, A. Facka, W. Gould, J. Ward, B. Wolf and two anonymous reviewers provided helpful comments on the manuscript, and E. Geffen assisted with funding.

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Correspondence to Gary W. Roemer.

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Communicated by Jörg Ganzhorn.

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Moses, M.R., Frey, J.K. & Roemer, G.W. Elevated surface temperature depresses survival of banner-tailed kangaroo rats: will climate change cook a desert icon?. Oecologia 168, 257–268 (2012).

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  • Biogeography
  • Capture–recapture
  • Heteromyidae
  • Information theory
  • Physiological limits
  • Range shift