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Alpine bird distributions along elevation gradients: the consistency of climate and habitat effects across geographic regions

Abstract

Many species have shown recent shifts in their distributions in response to climate change. Patterns in species occurrence or abundance along altitudinal gradients often serve as the basis for detecting such changes and assessing future sensitivity. Quantifying the distribution of species along altitudinal gradients acts as a fundamental basis for future studies on environmental change impacts, but in order for models of altitudinal distribution to have wide applicability, it is necessary to know the extent to which altitudinal trends in occurrence are consistent across geographically separated areas. This was assessed by fitting models of bird species occurrence across altitudinal gradients in relation to habitat and climate variables in two geographically separated alpine regions, Piedmont and Trentino. The ten species studied showed non-random altitudinal distributions which in most cases were consistent across regions in terms of pattern. Trends in relation to altitude and differences between regions could be explained mostly by habitat or a combination of habitat and climate variables. Variation partitioning showed that most variation explained by the models was attributable to habitat, or habitat and climate together, rather than climate alone or geographic region. The shape and position of the altitudinal distribution curve is important as it can be related to vulnerability where the available space is limited, i.e. where mountains are not of sufficient altitude for expansion. This study therefore suggests that incorporating habitat and climate variables should be sufficient to construct models with high transferability for many alpine species.

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Acknowledgments

The research in Piedmont was partly funded through a Grant to DEC from the People Programme (Marie Curie Actions) of the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme FP7/2007–2013/. The research in Trentino was partially supported by Accordo di programma PAT, 2010–2013 and MUSE 2011–2012; we are grateful to Franco Rizzolli and Francesco Ceresa for field work in Trentino. We are grateful to Ola Olsson and an anonymous referee for their constructive comments on an earlier version of the manuscript.

Author contribution statement

All authors contributed significantly to the conception and planning of the paper. DEC took a lead in analysing the data and writing the paper. MB and EC carried out data extraction in GIS. PP and AR managed fieldwork in Trentino and Piedmont, respectively.

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Correspondence to Dan Chamberlain.

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Communicated by Ola Olsson.

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Chamberlain, D., Brambilla, M., Caprio, E. et al. Alpine bird distributions along elevation gradients: the consistency of climate and habitat effects across geographic regions. Oecologia 181, 1139–1150 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-016-3637-y

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Keywords

  • Altitude
  • Climate change
  • Model performance
  • Model transferability
  • Variation partitioning