Distribution of microarthropods across altitude and aspect in the sub-Antarctic : climate change implications for an isolated oceanic island

11 Oct 2019

Current climate change is altering the distribution of species across both broad and fine scales. Examining contemporary species distributions along altitudinal gradients is one approach to predicting species future distributions, as species occurrence patterns at cold, high altitudes are expected to resemble the species distribution patterns currently observed at warmer, lower altitudes if warming occurs. Strong changes in climate have been observed in the sub-Antarctic over the last 50 years, with a 1.5 °C increase in mean temperature and a c. 30% decrease in mean precipitation recorded on Marion Island. In this study, the distribution patterns of mites and springtails inhabiting the cushion-plant Azorella selago were studied on Marion Island. Mite and springtail species richness and springtail abundance were significantly higher on the western aspect of the island, possibly due to higher rainfall and greater cloud cover on the windward side of the island. Mite abundance did not differ between aspects of the island, which may be due to the higher desiccation tolerance of mites. Mite and springtail species richness and springtail abundance were significantly lower at high altitudes coinciding with lower temperatures and generally harsher environment at higher altitudes. Plant characteristics generally did not contribute to explaining species patterns, suggesting that at the island-scale abiotic variables, rather than biotic factors, appeared to be the more important determinants of community structure. Therefore, despite species responding individualistically, it is clear that a warmer and drier climate will dramatically change the microarthropod community structure within A. selago on Marion Island.