Niche expansion and temperature sensitivity of tropical African montane forests

Sarah J. Ivory, Regan Early, Dov F. Sax, James Russell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


Aim: Climate and land-use change will have a dramatic impact on future ecosystems through alterations to species ranges and community composition. When forming conservation strategies, correlative species distribution models are often created to assess risks for individual species. These models are based on the assumption of climatic equilibrium, such that the modern range is representative of the full range of conditions under which species could thrive. However, the palaeo-ecological record illustrates examples of disequilibrium in species today, and recent studies suggest that many species could occur in much broader climatic settings than previously thought. Montane ecosystems are thought to be at disproportionate risk due to temperature sensitivity and restricted geographical ranges. However, in the Afrotropics the palaeo-ecological record shows that montane forest taxa expanded into the lowlands numerous times, suggesting a possible tolerance to warm temperatures. Location: Africa. Methods: We integrate palaeo-ecological and palaeo-climatic data in order to compare climate conditions in which species are currently found with those in the past. We use species distribution models to construct potential modern ranges for Afromontane species based on modern distributions and distributions in the palaeo-ecological record in order to evaluate the equilibrium of species ranges. Results: We show that many Afromontane trees have occupied warmer climates in the past, which suggests that the current low-elevation boundaries are not set by climate. Interestingly, the species with the largest disequilibrium between palaeo- and modern distributions are those whose modern distributions show the least temperature sensitivity. Mapping of species potential ranges based on modern and palaeo- distributions clearly shows that suitable climate conditions exist today in the lowlands for less temperature-sensitive species. Main conclusions: These results imply that the current range of these forest trees does not necessarily inform risk from climatic change, and that human land use may be the major pressure for many species in the future.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)693-703
Number of pages11
JournalGlobal Ecology and Biogeography
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 1 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


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