Thursday, November 19, 2009

Adapting to Climate Change, the Uphill Pursuit of the Shifting Niche

This post represents the final in a three part series discussing Joseph Grinnell, climate change and ecological niches. The initial post can be found here: Joseph Grinnell, Climate Change and the Legacy of the California Thrasher, and the second here: Tracking the Niche, a Project of Grinnellian Proportions.

Having adopted Joseph Grinnell’s vision as their own, the current Director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkeley and his colleagues have taken on the challenge of following in Grinnell’s footsteps – quite literally. The group, headed by current Director Craig Moritz, has begun the process of resurveying the 700-plus localities that were originally surveyed by Grinnell in the early 20th Century. Their goal is to compare the newly collected data to that inherited from Grinnell in aspirations of gaining insight into how a century of environmental change has impacted California’s avian, mammalian and herpetological faunas. Through application of carefully recalibrated Grinnellian field-methods, and the employment of modern techniques, the group is expanding biology’s understanding of the ecological niche.

As discussed during the first post on this topic (available HERE), the effects of average changes in global climate can be dramatically amplified at local levels. As a case in point, consider the region of California that was originally surveyed by Grinnell between the years 1914 and 1920. Over the past 100 years an approximate one-degree rise in global temperatures has resulted in a 3.7°C increase in minimum monthly temperature! A four-degree change in temperature has undoubtedly altered the ecology of this region - Yosemite National Park – in substantial and quantifiable ways. Such quantification has been precise goal of Grinnell’s successor.

Pulling data from Grinnell’s field-notes and DNA from his collected specimens, Craig Moritz has used climate models, modern genetics and biodiversity informatics to decipher and compare the demographies of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians of past and present. The analysis rendered from this research clearly indicates that the link between environment-and-species has remained true since its inception in Grinnell’s 'The Niche-Relationships of the California Thrasher'. More specifically, as the 3.7°C increase in minimum monthly temperature pushed Yosemite’s available habitats towards new equilibriums its fauna followed suit.

Yosemite’s geologic and geographic setting entails a range of elevations that extend from about 50 meters to well over 3000 meters above sea level. As is typical for diverging elevations, as altitude increases average temperatures decrease. So, if moving towards the top of a mountain one could anticipate encountering bands of cooler micro-climates. The relationship that exists between a specific temperature range and its corresponding physical components allow for identification of specific ‘life zones’. For example, the hydrology found on a mountain’s glacial peaks will differ in type and quantity to that located near the base of the mountain. In considering this natural phenomenon of elevational transition with specific regard to an overall increase in temperature across the mountainous region as a whole, an upward shift in ‘life zones’ could be predicted. In other words, as a temperature increase reaches a certain threshold, the glaciers capping a mountain will recede as to reduce the total area occupied by ice, and to increase the availability of liquid water. With increased access to water, life zones that had been previously locked in a frozen state will become biologically available to plants formerly bounded to lower glacier-free altitudes.

Moritz’s comparison of the life zones documented by Joseph Grinnell to those surveyed by his research group demonstrated that as Yosemite’s temperature increased over the past century, its life zones moved upwards. Significantly, the research showed that the uphill advance of life zones induced pursuit by those avian and mammalian faunas found below. The general pattern discovered by Moritz was that as temperatures increased in the park, the majority of wildlife populations found at high elevations contacted upwards, abandoning previously occupied portions of their lower habitat range. Correspondingly, those animals occupying lower altitudes shifted their habitats uphill.

The ability of Yosemite’s wildlife to confront ever-shifting environmental attributes with resilience and flexibility is critical to maintaining lineages with the capacity to undergo the morphological and behavioral modifications required for their continued survival. The study of the processes driving this evolution, provides more than just a greater understanding of natural history, it also imparts the tools to ensure species conservation as global climate change accelerates environmental fluctuation. Luckily, field scientists such as Joseph Grinnell have, and will continue, to provide insight into the plasticity of adaptation.

See: The Grinnell Project's website.

Moritz, C., Patton, J., Conroy, C., Parra, J., White, G., & Beissinger, S. (2008). Impact of a Century of Climate Change on Small-Mammal Communities in Yosemite National Park, USA Science, 322 (5899), 261-264 DOI: 10.1126/science.1163428

Tingley, M., Monahan, W., Beissinger, S., & Moritz, C. (2009). Colloquium Papers: Birds track their Grinnellian niche through a century of climate change Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106 (Supplement_2), 19637-19643 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0901562106

Joseph Grinnell (1917). The Niche-Relationships of the California Thrasher The Auk, 34 (4), 427-433

Joseph Grinnell (1924). Geography and Evolution Ecology, 5 (3), 225-229


  1. A very interesting and pertinent series of posts. The impacts of climate change are only going to be further complicated by the sheer diversity of species interactions, on top of shifting niches for individual species.

  2. Very true, the shifting niches and complex species interactions set the stage for novel cooperative and competitive dynamics; just a shame that they’re currently being forced at accelerated rates… It would be far more fascinating to watch them unfold at a less strenuous pace.