Climate change is altering the distributions of species, which in turn causes shifts in the composition of plant communities. Specifically, rising temperatures should cause increasing relative abundances of heat-loving or heat-tolerant species (that is, ‘thermophilization’) and changes in precipitation should cause altered abundances of water-demanding species. We analysed millions of records of thousands of species and found that the plant communities in most ecoregions in North, Central and South America have experienced thermophilization over the past four decades (1970–2011). Thermophilization was fastest in ecoregions with intermediate temperatures and was positively correlated with warming rates within many biomes. Changes in the relative abundances of water-demanding species were less consistent and were not correlated with changes in precipitation, meaning that the drought sensitivity of some ecoregions may be increasing despite decreasing rainfall and increasing probabilities of drought. Climate-driven changes in plant community composition will affect the function and stability of New World ecoregions.
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The project was based entirely on data that are publicly available through CHELSA (http://chelsa-climate.org/), Ecoregions2017 (https://ecoregions2017.appspot.com/) and BIEN (http://bien.nceas.ucsb.edu/bien/). A list of data providers contributing plant collection and observation records to BIEN is included in the Supplementary Information.
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This project was funded through the US National Science Foundation grant no. DEB-1350125 to K.J.F.; D.Z. was supported by the National Doctoral Scholarship COLCIENCIAS-Colombia grant no. 647, 2015-II.
The authors declare no competing interests.
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Extended Data Fig. 1 The relationships between temperature and precipitation at the species, ecosystem and community levels.
The relationships between a, species’ optimal temperature (MATopt, oC) and optimal precipitation (TAPopt, mm) as based on the distribution of observation records from 1970–1985 (Pearson’s R = 0.55; d.f. = 17241; P < 0.0001), b, the average Mean Annual Temperature (MAT, oC) and Total Annual Precipitation (TAP, mm) of ecoregions from 1979–2012 (Pearson’s correlation, R = 0.58; d.f. = 189; P < 0.0001), and c) the initial (1970–1985) Community Temperature Index (CTI, oC) and Community Precipitation Index (CPI, mm) of ecoregions (Pearson’s R = 0.72; d.f. = 189; P < 0.0001). In a, each point represents a species; in b and c, each point represents an ecoregion and points are coloured according to their biome designation (see Fig. 1).
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Feeley, K.J., Bravo-Avila, C., Fadrique, B. et al. Climate-driven changes in the composition of New World plant communities. Nat. Clim. Chang. 10, 965–970 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-020-0873-2