Rapid range expansion and community reorganization in response to warming

03 November 2010

Species ranges are expected to expand along their cooler boundaries in response to rising temperatures associated with current global climate change. However, this ‘fingerprint’ of climate change is yet to be assessed for an entire flora. Here, we examine patterns of altitudinal range change in the complete native vascular flora of sub-Antarctic Marion Island. We demonstrate a rapid mean upslope expansion in the flora since 1966, in response to 1.2˚C warming on the island. The 3.4 ±0.8myr-1 (mean ±SE) upslope expansion rate documented is amongst the highest estimates from partial floras. However, less than half of the species in the flora were responsible for the expansion trend, demonstrating that the global fingerprint of warming may be driven by a highly responsive subset of the species pool. Individual range expansion rates varied greatly, with species-specific niche requirements explaining some of this variation. As a result of the idiosyncratic expansion rates, altitudinal patterns of species richness and community composition changed considerably, with the formation of no-analog communities at high and intermediate altitudes. Therefore, both species- and community-level changes have occurred in the flora of Marion Island over a relatively short period of rapid warming, demonstrating the sensitivity of high latitude communities to climate change. Patterns of change within this flora illustrate the range of variation in species responses to climate change and the consequences thereof for species distributions and community reorganization.