Elevational ranges of birds on a tropical montane gradient lag behind warming temperatures

PLoS One. 2011;6(12):e28535. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0028535. Epub 2011 Dec 7.


Background: Species may respond to a warming climate by moving to higher latitudes or elevations. Shifts in geographic ranges are common responses in temperate regions. For the tropics, latitudinal temperature gradients are shallow; the only escape for species may be to move to higher elevations. There are few data to suggest that they do. Yet, the greatest loss of species from climate disruption may be for tropical montane species.

Methodology/principal findings: We repeat a historical transect in Peru and find an average upward shift of 49 m for 55 bird species over a 41 year interval. This shift is significantly upward, but also significantly smaller than the 152 m one expects from warming in the region. To estimate the expected shift in elevation we first determined the magnitude of warming in the locality from historical data. Then we used the temperature lapse rate to infer the required shift in altitude to compensate for warming. The range shifts in elevation were similar across different trophic guilds.

Conclusions: Endothermy may provide birds with some flexibility to temperature changes and allow them to move less than expected. Instead of being directly dependent on temperature, birds may be responding to gradual changes in the nature of the habitat or availability of food resources, and presence of competitors. If so, this has important implications for estimates of mountaintop extinctions from climate change.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Altitude
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal
  • Biodiversity
  • Birds / physiology*
  • Climate
  • Peru
  • Population Dynamics
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Species Specificity
  • Temperature
  • Tropical Climate