Gradient-based habitat affinities predict species vulnerability to drought


  • Corresponding Editor: J. T. Cronin.


Ecological fingerprints of climate change are becoming increasingly evident at broad geographical scales as measured by species range shifts and changes in phenology. However, finer-scale species-level responses to environmental fluctuations may also provide an important bellwether of impending future community responses. Here we examined changes in abundance of butterfly species along a hydrological gradient of six montane meadow habitat types in response to drought. Our data collection began prior to the drought, and we were able to track changes for 11 years, of which eight were considered mild to extreme drought conditions. We separated the species into those that had an affinity for hydric vs. xeric habitats. We suspected that drought would favor species with xeric habitat affinities, but that there could be variations in species-level responses along the hydrological gradient. We also suspected that mesic meadows would be most sensitive to drought conditions. Temporal trajectories were modeled for both species groups (hydric vs. xeric affinity) and individual species. Abundances of species with affinity for xeric habitats increased in virtually all meadow types. Conversely, abundances of species with affinity for hydric habitats decreased, particularly in mesic and xeric meadows. Mesic meadows showed the most striking temporal abundance trajectory: Increasing abundances of species with xeric habitat affinity were offset by decreasing or stable abundances of species with hydric habitat affinity. The one counterintuitive finding was that, in some hydric meadows, species with affinity for hydric habitats increased. In these cases, we suspect that decreasing moisture conditions in hydric meadows actually increased habitat suitability because sites near the limit of moisture extremes for some species became more acceptable. Thus, species responses were relatively predictable based upon habitat affinity and habitat location along the hydrological gradient, and mesic meadows showed the highest potential for changes in community composition. The implications of these results are that longer-term changes due to drought could simplify community composition, resulting in prevalence of species tolerant to drying conditions and a loss of species associated with wetter conditions. We contend that this application of gradient analysis could be valuable in assessing species vulnerability of other taxa and ecosystems.