Topographic influences on vegetation mosaics and tree diversity in the Chihuahuan Desert Borderlands


  • Corresponding Editor: C. Galen.


The abundance and distribution of species reflect how the niche requirements of species and the dynamics of populations interact with spatial and temporal variation in the environment. This study investigated the influence of geographical variation in environmental site conditions on tree dominance and diversity patterns in three topographically dissected mountain ranges in west Texas, USA, and northern Mexico. We measured tree abundance and basal area using a systematic sampling design across the forested areas of three mountain ranges and related these data to a suite of environmental parameters derived from field and digital elevation model data. We employed cluster analysis, classification and regression trees (CART), and rarefaction to identify (1) the dominant forest cover types across the three study sites and (2) environmental influences on tree distribution and diversity patterns. Elevation, topographic position, and incident solar radiation were the major influences on tree dominance and diversity. Mesic valley bottoms hosted high-diversity vegetation types, while hotter and drier mid-slopes and ridgetops supported lower tree diversity. Valley bottoms and other topographic positions shared few species, indicating high species turnover at the landscape scale. Mountain ranges with high topographic complexity also had higher species richness, suggesting that geographical variability in environmental conditions was a major influence on tree diversity. This study stressed the importance of landscape- and regional-scale topographic variability as a key factor controlling vegetation pattern and diversity in southwestern North America.