Changes in species interactions across a 2.5 km elevation gradient: effects on plant migration in response to climate change


R. Hillyer, tel. +1 336 758 3967, e-mail:


Predicted climate change in the Andes will require plant species to migrate upslope to avoid extinction. Central to predictions of species responses to climate change is an understanding of species distributions along environmental gradients. Environmental gradients are frequently modelled as abiotic, but biotic interactions can play important roles in setting species distributions, abundances, and life history traits. Biotic interactions also have the potential to influence species responses to climate change, yet they remain mostly unquantified. An important interaction long studied in tropical forests is postdispersal seed predation which has been shown to affect the population dynamics, community structure, and diversity of plant species in time and space. This paper presents a comparative seed predation study of 24 species of tropical trees across a 2.5 km elevation gradient in the Peruvian Andes and quantifies seed predation variation across the elevational gradient. We then use demographic modelling to assess effects of the observed variation in seed predation on population growth rates in response to observed increasing temperatures in the area. We found marked variation among species in total seed predation depending on the major seed predator of the species and consistent changes in seed predation across the gradient. There was a significant increase in seed survival with increasing elevation, a trend that appears to be driven by regulation of seed predators via top–down forces in the lowlands giving way to bottom–up (productivity) regulation at mid- to high elevations, resulting in a ninefold increase in effective fecundity for trees at high elevations. This potential increase in seed crop size strongly affects modelled plant population growth and seed dispersal distances, increasing population migration potential in the face of climate change. These results also indicate that species interactions can have effects on par with climate in species responses to global change.