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Climate-driven changes in the composition of New World plant communities


A Publisher Correction to this article was published on 10 September 2020

This article has been updated


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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Fig. 1: The relationships between climate and floristic composition of New World ecoregions.
Fig. 2: The thermophilization and mesophilization rates of 191 New World ecoregion plant communities.
Fig. 3: Maps showing the geographic patterns in climate change and changes in plant community composition.
Fig. 4: Differences in the climate compositions of lost, recruiting and surviving species.
Fig. 5: The relationships between changes in the floristic composition of 191 New World ecoregions and their climate.
Fig. 6: The relationships between changes in the floristic composition of 191 New World ecoregions and changes in climate.

Data availability

The project was based entirely on data that are publicly available through CHELSA (, Ecoregions2017 ( and 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.

Author information




K.J.F. conceived and designed the project and led manuscript writing. K.J.F., C.B., B.F., T.M.P. and D.Z. analysed the data and interpreted results. K.J.F. led manuscript writing and preparation. C.B., B.F., T.M.P. and D.Z. assisted in manuscript writing and preparation.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to K. J. Feeley.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Extended data

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).

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary text and Figs. 1–9.

Supplementary Data

Supplementary Data 1a–f.

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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).

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