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Four decades of plant community change along a continental gradient of warming

Becker‐Scarpitta, Antoine, Vissault, Steve, Vellend, Mark
Global change biology 2019 v.25 no.5 pp. 1629-1641
biogeography, conservation areas, forests, global warming, mountains, parks, prediction, species richness, surveys, temperature, uncertainty, Quebec
Many studies of individual sites have revealed biotic changes consistent with climate warming (e.g., upward elevational distribution shifts), but our understanding of the tremendous variation among studies in the magnitude of such biotic changes is minimal. In this study, we resurveyed forest vegetation plots 40 years after the initial surveys in three protected areas along a west‐to‐east gradient of increasingly steep recent warming trends in eastern Canada (Québec). Consistent with the hypothesis that climate warming has been an important driver of vegetation change, we found an increasing magnitude of changes in species richness and composition from west to east among the three parks. For the two mountainous parks, we found no significant changes in elevational species’ distributions in the easternmost park (raw mean = +11.4 m at Forillon Park) where warming has been minimal, and significant upward distribution shifts in the centrally located park (+38.9 m at Mont‐Mégantic), where the recent warming trend has been marked. Community Temperature Indices (CTI), reflecting the average affinities of locally co‐occurring species to temperature conditions across their geographic ranges (“Species Temperature Indices”), did not change over time as predicted. However, close examination of the underpinnings of CTI values suggested a high sensitivity to uncertainty in individual species’ temperature indices, and so a potentially limited responsiveness to warming. Overall, by testing a priori predictions concerning variation among parks in the direction and magnitude of vegetation changes, we have provided stronger evidence for a link between climate warming and biotic responses than otherwise possible and provided a potential explanation for large variation among studies in warming‐related biotic changes.