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Shifting avian spatial regimes in a changing climate


In the present era of rapid global change, development of early warnings of ecological regime shifts is a major focus in ecology. Identifying and tracking shifts in spatial regimes is a new approach with potential to enhance understanding of ecological responses to global change. Here, we show strong directional non-stationarity of spatial regimes identified by avian community body mass data. We do this by tracking 46 years of avian spatial regime movement in the North American Great Plains. The northernmost spatial regime boundary moved >590 km northward, and the southernmost boundary moved >260 km northward. Tracking spatial regimes affords decadal planning horizons and moves beyond the predominately temporal early warnings of the past by providing spatiotemporally explicit detection of regime shifts in systems without fixed boundaries.

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Fig. 1: Shifts in spatial regime boundaries demonstrated by breeding bird body mass discontinuities from 1970 to 2015 in the North American Great Plains.
Fig. 2: Visualization and tracking of predicted decadal spatial regimes and their boundaries in the North American Great Plains.
Fig. 3: Global changes influencing ecological regimes in central North America.
Fig. 4: Spatial regime boundary movement between 37 and 42° latitude across a network of protected areas in central North America.

Data availability

All data are available in the Supplementary Data.

Code availability

R code and instructions for repeating analyses are available in the Supplementary Data.


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We thank the Complexity Working Group for conceptual development, J. L. Burnett for help in database creation, and D. Ebbeka and C. Bielski for help with data visualization. This work was supported by Department of Defense Strategic Environmental Research Development Program W912HQ-15-C-0018, Nebraska Game & Parks Commission W-125-R-1 and the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. The Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit is jointly supported by a cooperative agreement between the US Geological Survey, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, the University of Nebraska, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Wildlife Management Institute. Any use of trade, firm or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the US Government.

Author information




C.P.R. contributed to conceptualization, programming, validation, formal analysis, data curation, all writing aspects, visualization and project administration. C.R.A., D.G.A. and D.T. contributed to funding acquisition, conceptualization, all writing aspects and visualization.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Caleb P. Roberts.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information: Nature Climate Change thanks Eldar Rakhimberdiev and other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Tables 1 and 2.

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Supplementary Data 1

Zipped file of data, R code and instructions for repeating analyses.

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Roberts, C.P., Allen, C.R., Angeler, D.G. et al. Shifting avian spatial regimes in a changing climate. Nat. Clim. Chang. 9, 562–566 (2019).

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