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Intra-specific variability and plasticity influence potential tree species distributions under climate change


Marta Benito Garzón, CIFOR-INIA, Cta. De la Coruña Km 7,5, 28040 Madrid, Spain. E-mail:


Aim  To assess the effect of local adaptation and phenotypic plasticity on the potential distribution of species under future climate changes. Trees may be adapted to specific climatic conditions; however, species range predictions have classically been assessed by species distribution models (SDMs) that do not account for intra-specific genetic variability and phenotypic plasticity, because SDMs rely on the assumption that species respond homogeneously to climate change across their range, i.e. a species is equally adapted throughout its range, and all species are equally plastic. These assumptions could cause SDMs to exaggerate or underestimate species at risk under future climate change.

Location  The Iberian Peninsula.

Methods  Species distributions are predicted by integrating experimental data and modelling techniques. We incorporate plasticity and local adaptation into a SDM by calibrating models of tree survivorship with adaptive traits in provenance trials. Phenotypic plasticity was incorporated by calibrating our model with a climatic index that provides a measure of the differences between sites and provenances.

Results  We present a new modelling approach that is easy to implement and makes use of existing tree provenance trials to predict species distribution models under global warming. Our results indicate that the incorporation of intra-population genetic diversity and phenotypic plasticity in SDMs significantly altered their outcome. In comparing species range predictions, the decrease in area occupancy under global warming conditions is smaller when considering our survival–adaptation model than that predicted by a ‘classical SDM’ calibrated with presence–absence data. These differences in survivorship are due to both local adaptation and plasticity. Differences due to the use of experimental data in the model calibration are also expressed in our results: we incorporate a null model that uses survival data from all provenances together. This model always predicts less reduction in area occupancy for both species than the SDM calibrated with presence–absence.

Main conclusions  We reaffirm the importance of considering adaptive traits when predicting species distributions and avoiding the use of occurrence data as a predictive variable. In light of these recommendations, we advise that existing predictions of future species distributions and their component populations must be reconsidered.