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Demographic compensation and tipping points in climate-induced range shifts


To persist, species are expected to shift their geographical ranges polewards or to higher elevations as the Earth’s climate warms1,2,3,4. However, although many species’ ranges have shifted in historical times, many others have not, or have shifted only at the high-latitude or high-elevation limits, leading to range expansions rather than contractions5,6,7,8,9,10,11. Given these idiosyncratic responses to climate warming, and their varied implications for species’ vulnerability to climate change, a critical task is to understand why some species have not shifted their ranges, particularly at the equatorial or low-elevation limits, and whether such resilience will last as warming continues. Here we show that compensatory changes in demographic rates are buffering southern populations of two North American tundra plants against the negative effects of a warming climate, slowing their northward range shifts, but that this buffering is unlikely to continue indefinitely. Southern populations of both species showed lower survival and recruitment but higher growth of individual plants, possibly owing to longer, warmer growing seasons. Because of these and other compensatory changes, the population growth rates of southern populations are not at present lower than those of northern ones. However, continued warming may yet prove detrimental, as most demographic rates that improved in moderately warmer years declined in the warmest years, with the potential to drive future population declines. Our results emphasize the need for long-term, range-wide measurement of all population processes to detect demographic compensation and to identify nonlinear responses that may lead to sudden range shifts as climatic tipping points are exceeded.

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Figure 1: Locations and climate patterns of field sites.
Figure 2: Mean vital rates and stochastic population growth rates ( λ s ) for two tundra plant species along a latitudinal transect.
Figure 3: Effects of two temperature-related variables, mean July temperature and snow-free period, on annual vital rates and on projected population growth rates.


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This work was supported by NSF grants DEB-9806818, DEB-0087096 and DEB-0716433. We thank the many field and laboratory assistants who have helped over the years, and J. Estes, N. Haddad, A. Rose and W. Thuiller.

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The two authors contributed equally to the field work, the statistical analyses and the modelling exercises reported in this paper.

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Correspondence to Daniel F. Doak.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Doak, D., Morris, W. Demographic compensation and tipping points in climate-induced range shifts. Nature 467, 959–962 (2010).

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