Aim In subalpine and alpine environments, range shifts of species to higher altitudes are predicted to occur in response to reductions in the snow cover from climate change. However, the distribution of key resources may constrain the range of animal populations and prevent any upward migration. This study examined the local resource constraints on the upper range limit of a large, native herbivore in Australia, the common wombat Vombatus ursinus.
Location The subalpine zone of the Snowy Mountains, Australia.
Methods Logistic regression analyses of snow and habitat predictors were conducted on the presence/absence of wombat signs recorded along an altitudinal gradient during winter and summer, using parametric and nonparametric methods.
Results Wombats responded strongly to the altitudinal gradient, but snow cover alone did not fully explain their upper range limit. Wombat occurrence in the subalpine zone was influenced by local habitat features in combination with maximum snow depth. More rugged, high-relief terrain was important to wombats in winter, allowing individuals access to a wider range of altitudes, snow depths and shelter sites. During summer, high soil bulk density was an important predictor of occurrence, and in both seasons, occurrence declined in response to a higher cover of burnt grass.
Main conclusions These models demonstrate that local habitat factors play a role even where there are strong regulating environmental factors. For wombats, this may limit future range expansion into the alpine zone despite the potential for an increase in abundance at their present range limit. These findings show the need for local ecological studies to be conducted in parallel with broad scale climate modelling if we are to understand shifts in species distributions as the climate rapidly changes.