Aims Biogeographical evidence suggests a strong link between climate and patterns of species diversity, and climate change is known to cause range shifts. However, there is little understanding of how shifts affect community composition and we lack empirical evidence of recent impacts of climate change on the diversity of vertebrates. Using a long-term comprehensive dataset on bird abundance, we explore recent patterns of change in different components of species diversity and avian communities, and postulate a process to explain the observed changes in diversity and specialization.
Methods We used Breeding Bird Survey data for Britain from 1994 to 2006 to calculate site-specific diversity and community specialization indices. We modelled these indices using generalized additive models to examine the relationship between local climate and spatial and temporal trends in community metrics and the relationship between changes in diversity and specialization.
Results Local temperature was positively associated with alpha diversity, which increased over the study period, supporting empirical and theoretical predictions of the effect of climate warming. Diversity increased in all habitats, but the rate of increase was greatest in upland areas. However, temperature was negatively associated with community specialization indices, which declined over the same period. Our modelling revealed a nonlinear relationship between community specialization and species diversity.
Main conclusions Our models of diversity and specialization provide stark empirical evidence for a link between warming climate and community homogenization. Over a 13-year period of warming temperatures, diversity indices increased while average community specialization decreased. We suggest that the observed diversity increases were most likely driven by range expansion of generalist species and that future warming is likely to increase homogenization of community structure. When assessed in combination, diversity and specialization measures provide a powerful index for monitoring the impacts of climate change.