Assessing the threat to montane biodiversity from discordant shifts in temperature and precipitation in a changing climate


  • Christy M. McCain,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and CU Museum of Natural History, MCOL 265 UCB, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309-0265, USA
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  • Robert K. Colwell

    1. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT 06269, USA
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Ecology Letters (2011) 14: 1236–1245


Mountains are centres of global biodiversity, endemism and threatened species. Elevational gradients present opportunities for species currently living near their upper thermal limits to track cooler temperatures upslope in warming climates, but only if changes in precipitation are sufficiently in step with temperature. We model local population extirpation risk for a range of temperature and precipitation scenarios over the next 100 years for 16 848 vertebrate species populations distributed along 156 elevational gradients. Average population extirpation risks due to warming alone were < 5%, but increased 10-fold, on average, when changes in precipitation were also considered. Under the driest scenarios (minimum predicted precipitation), local extirpation risks increased sharply (50–60%) and were especially worrisome for hydrophilic amphibians and montane Latin America (c. 80%). Realistic assessment of risks urgently requires improved monitoring of precipitation, better regional precipitation models and more research on the effects of changes in precipitation on montane distributions.