Extreme climatic events drive mammal irruptions: regression analysis of 100-year trends in desert rainfall and temperature


  • Australian Research Council and an Australian Postgraduate Award (to ACG) provided funding for this project.


Aaron Greenville, Desert Ecology Research Group, School of Biological Sciences, University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia. Tel: +61 2 9351 8577; Fax: +61 2 9351 4119; E-mail: aaron.greenville@sydney.edu.au


Extreme climatic events, such as flooding rains, extended decadal droughts and heat waves have been identified increasingly as important regulators of natural populations. Climate models predict that global warming will drive changes in rainfall and increase the frequency and severity of extreme events. Consequently, to anticipate how organisms will respond we need to document how changes in extremes of temperature and rainfall compare to trends in the mean values of these variables and over what spatial scales the patterns are consistent. Using the longest historical weather records available for central Australia – 100 years – and quantile regression methods, we investigate if extreme climate events have changed at similar rates to median events, if annual rainfall has increased in variability, and if the frequency of large rainfall events has increased over this period. Specifically, we compared local (individual weather stations) and regional (Simpson Desert) spatial scales, and quantified trends in median (50th quantile) and extreme weather values (5th, 10th, 90th, and 95th quantiles). We found that median and extreme annual minimum and maximum temperatures have increased at both spatial scales over the past century. Rainfall changes have been inconsistent across the Simpson Desert; individual weather stations showed increases in annual rainfall, increased frequency of large rainfall events or more prolonged droughts, depending on the location. In contrast to our prediction, we found no evidence that intra-annual rainfall had become more variable over time. Using long-term live-trapping records (22 years) of desert small mammals as a case study, we demonstrate that irruptive events are driven by extreme rainfalls (>95th quantile) and that increases in the magnitude and frequency of extreme rainfall events are likely to drive changes in the populations of these species through direct and indirect changes in predation pressure and wildfires.