The fossil record has led to a historical explanation for forest diversity gradients within the cool parts of the Northern Hemisphere, founded on a limited ability of woody angiosperm clades to adapt to mid-Tertiary cooling. We tested four predictions of how this should be manifested in the phylogenetic structure of 91,340 communities: (1) forests to the north should comprise species from younger clades (families) than forests to the south; (2) average cold tolerance at a local site should be associated with the mean family age (MFA) of species; (3) minimum temperature should account for MFA better than alternative environmental variables; and (4) traits associated with survival in cold climates should evolve under a niche conservatism constraint.
The contiguous United States.
We extracted angiosperms from the US Forest Service's Forest Inventory and Analysis database. MFA was calculated by assigning age of the family to which each species belongs and averaging across the species in each community. We developed a phylogeny to identify phylogenetic signal in five traits: realized cold tolerance, seed size, seed dispersal mode, leaf phenology and height. Phylogenetic signal representation curves and phylogenetic generalized least squares were used to compare patterns of trait evolution against Brownian motion. Eleven predictors structured at broad or local scales were generated to explore relationships between environment and MFA using random forest and general linear models.
Consistent with predictions, (1) southern communities comprise angiosperm species from older families than northern communities, (2) cold tolerance is the trait most strongly associated with local MFA, (3) minimum temperature in the coldest month is the environmental variable that best describes MFA, broad-scale variables being much stronger correlates than local-scale variables, and (4) the phylogenetic structures of cold tolerance and at least one other trait associated with survivorship in cold climates indicate niche conservatism.
Tropical niche conservatism in the face of long-term climate change, probably initiated in the Late Cretaceous associated with the rise of the Rocky Mountains, is a strong driver of the phylogenetic structure of the angiosperm component of forest communities across the USA. However, local deterministic and/or stochastic processes account for perhaps a quarter of the variation in the MFA of local communities.