Exposure to climate change drives stability or collapse of desert mammal and bird communities

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Science  05 Feb 2021:
Vol. 371, Issue 6529, pp. 633-636
DOI: 10.1126/science.abd4605

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Microhabitat matters

Understanding how our warming climate affects vulnerable species is of paramount importance. However, predicting responses is complicated because species are complex and may adapt or respond in distinct ways. Riddell et al. compared a century-old dataset on species richness in the Mojave against modern surveys to measure climate-related changes in bird and small mammal communities. They found little change in mammal richness or occupancy but large declines across birds. They attribute these differences to differences in microclimate opportunities: Specifically, mammals can mitigate temperature impacts through burrowing, whereas birds are generally more exposed.

Science, this issue p. 633


High exposure to warming from climate change is expected to threaten biodiversity by pushing many species toward extinction. Such exposure is often assessed for all taxa at a location from climate projections, yet species have diverse strategies for buffering against temperature extremes. We compared changes in species occupancy and site-level richness of small mammal and bird communities in protected areas of the Mojave Desert using surveys spanning a century. Small mammal communities remained remarkably stable, whereas birds declined markedly in response to warming and drying. Simulations of heat flux identified different exposure to warming for birds and mammals, which we attribute to microhabitat use. Estimates from climate projections are unlikely to accurately reflect species’ exposure without accounting for the effects of microhabitat buffering on heat flux.

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