Latitudinal range shifts in Australian flying-foxes: A re-evaluation


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Recent range shifts towards higher latitudes have been reported for many animals and plants in the northern hemisphere, and are commonly attributed to changes in climate. Relatively little is known about such changes in the southern hemisphere, although it has been suggested that latitudinal distributions of the fruit-bats Pteropus alecto and Pteropus poliocephalus changed during the 20th century in response to climate change in eastern Australia. However, historical changes in these species distributions have not been examined systematically. In this study we obtained historical locality records from a wide range of sources (including banding and museum records, government wildlife databases and unpublished records), and filtered them for reliability and spatial accuracy. The latitudinal distribution of each species was compared between eight time-periods (1843–1920, 1921–1950, five 10-year intervals between 1950 and 2000, and 2001–2007), using analyses of both the filtered point data (P. alecto 870 records, P. poliocephalus 2506) and presence/absence data within 50 × 50 km grid cells. The results do not support the hypothesis that either species range is shifting in a manner driven by climate change. First, neither the northern or southern range limits of P. poliocephalus (Mackay, Queensland and Melbourne, Victoria respectively) changed over time. Second, P. alecto's range limit extended southward by 1168 km (approximately 10.5 degrees latitude) during the twentieth century (from approximately Rockhampton, Queensland to Sydney, New South Wales). Within this zone of southward expansion (25–29°S), the percentage of total records that were P. alecto increased from 8% prior to 1950 to 49% in the early 2000s, and local count data showed that its abundance increased from several hundred to more than 10 000 individuals at specific roost sites, as range expansion progressed. Pteropus alecto expanded southward at about 100 km/decade, compared with the 10–26 km/decade rate of isotherm change, and analyses of historical weather data show that the species consequently moved into recently-colder regions than it had previously occupied. Neither climate change nor habitat change could provide simple explanations to explain P. alecto's observed rapid range shift. More generally, climate change should not be uncritically inferred as a primary driver of species range shifts without careful quantitative analyses.