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Global mountain topography and the fate of montane species under climate change


Increasing evidence indicates that species throughout the world are responding to climate change by shifting their geographic distributions1,2,3. Although shifts can be directionally heterogeneous4,5, they often follow warming temperatures polewards and upslope1,2,6. Montane species are of particular concern in this regard, as they are expected to face reduced available area of occupancy and increased risk of extinction with upslope movements6,7,8,9. However, this expectation hinges on the assumption that surface area decreases monotonically as species move up mountainsides. We analysed the elevational availability of surface area for a global data set containing 182 of the world’s mountain ranges. Sixty-eight per cent of these mountain ranges had topographies in which area did not decrease monotonically with elevation. Rather, mountain range topographies exhibited four distinct area–elevation patterns: decreasing (32% of ranges), increasing (6%), a mid-elevation peak in area (39%), and a mid-elevation trough in area (23%). These findings suggest that many species, particularly those of foothills and lower montane zones, may encounter increases in available area as a result of shifting upslope. A deeper understanding of underlying mountain topography can inform conservation priorities by revealing where shifting species stand to undergo area increases, decreases and bottlenecks as they respond to climate change.

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Figure 1: Examples of each of four mountain hypsographic classifications.
Figure 2: Global distribution of mountain range hypsographic classes.
Figure 3: Percentage of change in available area following a 2 °C upslope range shift for a hypothetical montane vertebrate species in mountain ranges around the world.


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P.R.E. was supported by Princeton University and the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program under Grant No. DGE-1148900. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. M.W.T. was supported by the D. H. Smith Conservation Research Fellowship administered by the Society for Conservation Biology and financially supported by the Cedar Tree Foundation. We thank D. Wilcove for valuable discussions throughout the preparation of the manuscript. We are grateful to M. Costelloe for graphical assistance. We thank C. Chang, J. B. Harris, F. Hua, J. Lee, T. M. Lee, T. Mu, A. F. A. Pellegrini, S. J. Socolar and T. Truer for providing insightful comments.

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Both authors contributed equally to all aspects of the research, including project conception, data analysis and manuscript preparation.

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Correspondence to Paul R. Elsen or Morgan W. Tingley.

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Elsen, P., Tingley, M. Global mountain topography and the fate of montane species under climate change. Nature Clim Change 5, 772–776 (2015).

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