Aim The assumption that ecological patterns at large spatial scales originate exclusively from non-anthropogenic processes is growing more questionable with the increasing domination of the biosphere by humans. Because common and rare species are known to respond differently to anthropogenic activities at local scales these differential responses could, over time, be reflected in distributional patterns of species richness at larger spatial scales. This work tests the hypothesis that modern processes have played a role in shaping these patterns, by examining recent changes in the structure and composition of assemblages of breeding avifauna over a large geographical extent.
Location The portion of North America containing the contiguous United States and southern Canada.
Methods Changes in the geographical range structure of breeding avifauna in North America from 1968 to 2003 were analysed in regions containing historically moderate levels of anthropogenic activities. Two geographical measures, extent of occurrence and area of occupancy, were used to identify the level of rarity or commonality of individual species and to estimate, based on a vector analysis, patterns of change in geographical range structure for individual species and avian assemblages.
Results More species experienced patterns of geographical range expansion (51%) than contraction (28%). The majority of avian assemblages (43%) displayed patterns of geographical range expansion: common species increased in number and proportion (6%) in association with reciprocal losses in rare and moderately rare species, resulting in a constant level of species richness. The minority of avian assemblages (21%) displayed patterns of geographical range contraction: gains occurred for common species as well as for rare and moderately rare species, resulting in substantial increases in species richness and a decline in the proportion of common species (4%). The remaining avian assemblages presented equivocal patterns characterized by gains in the number and proportion (2%) of common species and gains in species richness.
Main conclusions Modern processes have played a role in shaping the distribution patterns of species richness at large spatial scales based on the composition of common and rare species. This suggests that anthropogenic activities cannot be ignored as a possible causal factor when considering ecological patterns at large spatial scales.