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Climate tolerances and habitat requirements jointly shape the elevational distribution of the American Pika (Ochotona princeps), with implications for climate change effects

January 1, 2015

Some of the most compelling examples of ecological responses to climate change are elevational range shifts of individual species, which have been observed throughout the world. A growing body of evidence, however, suggests substantial mediation of simple range shifts due to climate change by other limiting factors. Understanding limiting factors for a species within different contexts, therefore, is critical for predicting responses to climate change. The American pika (Ochotona princeps) is an ideal species for investigating distributions in relation to climate because of their unusual and well-understood natural history as well as observed shifts to higher elevation in parts of their range. We tested three hypotheses for the climatic or habitat characteristics that may limit pika presence and abundance: summer heat, winter snowpack, and forage availability. We performed these tests using an index of pika abundance gathered in a region where environmental influences on pika distribution have not been well-characterized. We estimated relative pika abundance via scat surveys and quantified climatic and habitat characteristics across two North-Central Rocky Mountain Ranges, the Wind River and Bighorn ranges in Wyoming, USA. Pika scat density was highest at mid-elevations and increased linearly with forage availability in both ranges. Scat density also increased with temperatures conducive to forage plant growth, and showed a unimodal relationship with the number of days below -5°C, which is modulated by insulating snowpack. Our results provide support for both the forage availability and winter snowpack hypotheses. Especially in montane systems, considering the context-dependent nature of climate effects across regions and elevations as well as interactions between climatic and other critical habitat characteristics, will be essential for predicting future species distributions.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2015
Title Climate tolerances and habitat requirements jointly shape the elevational distribution of the American Pika (Ochotona princeps), with implications for climate change effects
DOI 10.1371/journal.pone.0131082
Authors Leah H. Yandow, Anna D. Chalfoun, Daniel F. Doak
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title PLoS ONE
Series Number
Index ID 70192019
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Coop Res Unit Seattle

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