Shifts of distributions have been attributed to species tracking their fundamental climate niches through space. However, several studies have now demonstrated that niche tracking is imperfect, that species' climate niches may vary with population trends, and that geographic distributions may lag behind rapid climate change. These reports of imperfect niche tracking imply shifts in species' realized climate niches. We argue that quantifying climate niche shifts and analyzing them for a suite of species reveal general patterns of niche shifts and the factors affecting species' ability to track climate change. We analyzed changes in realized climate niche between 1984 and 2012 for 46 species of North American birds in relation to population trends in an effort to determine whether species differ in the ability to track climate change and whether differences in niche tracking are related to population trends. We found that increasingly abundant species tended to show greater levels of niche expansion (climate space occupied in 2012 but not in 1980) compared to declining species. Declining species had significantly greater niche unfilling (climate space occupied in 1980 but not in 2012) compared to increasing species due to an inability to colonize new sites beyond their range peripheries after climate had changed at sites of occurrence. Increasing species, conversely, were better able to colonize new sites and therefore showed very little niche unfilling. Our results indicate that species with increasing trends are better able to geographically track climate change compared to declining species, which exhibited lags relative to changes in climate. These findings have important implications for understanding past changes in distribution, as well as modeling dynamic species distributions in the face of climate change.
Ralston, Joel; DeLuca, William V.; Feldman, Richard E.; King, David I. 2016. Population trends influence species ability to track climate change. Global Change Biology. 23: 1390-1399. doi: 10.1111/gcb.13478