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The past, present and potential future distributions of cold-adapted bird species


Correspondence: Barbara J. Anderson and Chris D. Thomas, Department of Biology, University of York, Heslington Way, York, YO10 5DD, UK.




Species' distributions change through time, and many species have recently shifted their ranges in response to anthropogenic climate change. However, predicting future distributional changes remains a challenge. We tested the ability of climate-only distributional models, built using present-day climate data, to project distributions of four European bird species during the Last Glacial Maximum. Projected distributions under past climate scenarios were compared with fossil data to gauge the validity of the projections.


Europe and North Africa (30°N–82°N, 31°W–61°E).


We generated generalized additive models (GAMs) between the present-day climate and distributions of four cold-adapted bird species. These models were projected onto climatic conditions representative of the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM, 21,000 years ago) and future conditions (2080s). We tested the capacity of these climate-only models to produce realistic projections under colder, past climates using fossil distributional data.


Models and empirical data both indicate that the Willow grouse Lagopus lagopus and Rock ptarmigan Lagopus mutus occurred at lower latitudes during the LGM, compared with their current distributions, whereas the currently montane Yellow-billed chough Pyrrhocorax graculus and White-winged snowfinch Montifringilla nivalis would have had broadly similar LGM and present-day distributions. Models and empirical data agree that all four species co-occurred at the LGM in central/southern Europe, although they do not do so today. Future projections indicate that the LGM four-species community may be reunited in Scandinavia by the end of this century if the southern species are able to colonize.

Main Conclusions

Our results suggest that climatic constraints are sufficient to capture the key attributes of the distributional changes in these four bird species, revealing individualistic responses and community disassembly and re-assembly through time and space.

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