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Climate impacts on bird and plant communities from altered animal–plant interactions

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Abstract

The contribution of climate change to declining populations of organisms remains a question of outstanding concern1,2,3. Much attention to declining populations has focused on how changing climate drives phenological mismatches between animals and their food4,5,6. Effects of climate on plant communities may provide an alternative, but particularly powerful, influence on animal populations because plants provide their habitats. Here, we show that abundances of deciduous trees and associated songbirds have declined with decreasing snowfall over 22 years of study in montane Arizona, USA. We experimentally tested the hypothesis that declining snowfall indirectly influences plants and associated birds by allowing greater over-winter herbivory by elk (Cervus canadensis). We excluded elk from one of two paired snowmelt drainages (10 ha per drainage), and replicated this paired experiment across three distant canyons. Over six years, we reversed multi-decade declines in plant and bird populations by experimentally inhibiting heavy winter herbivory associated with declining snowfall. Moreover, predation rates on songbird nests decreased in exclosures, despite higher abundances of nest predators, demonstrating the over-riding importance of habitat quality to avian recruitment. Thus, our results suggest that climate impacts on plant–animal interactions can have forceful ramifying effects on plants, birds, and ecological interactions.

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Figure 1: Long-term declines in total snowfall, deciduous woody plants and elk.
Figure 2: Densities of breeding birds (number of breeding pairs per 10 ha drainage) over time and between treatments.
Figure 3: Effects of elk exclusion on deciduous woody plant recruitment.
Figure 4: Difference in daily nest predation rates (percentage of nests depredated daily) on exclosure minus control drainages across all species and years of study.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to S. Auer, D. Barton, J. Brodie and M. Hebblewhite for many helpful comments on the manuscript and to the many research assistants that helped in collecting the data reported here. This work was supported by the US Geological Survey Climate Change Research Program, the National Research Initiative of the USDA CSREES (2005-02817 to T.E.M., 2005-35101-16040 to J.L.M.) and the US National Science Foundation (DEB-9981527, DEB-0543178 and DEB-0841764 to T.E.M.). Any use of trade names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the US government.

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T.E.M. and J.L.M. designed the study. T.E.M. conducted bird censuses across all years. T.E.M. collected data on nest predation with the assistance of a large number of field assistants and J.L.M. collected data on plant densities and heights with the assistance of many field assistants. T.E.M. and J.L.M. analysed the data and wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Thomas E. Martin.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Martin, T., Maron, J. Climate impacts on bird and plant communities from altered animal–plant interactions. Nature Clim Change 2, 195–200 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1348

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