Aim? Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa Douglas ex Lawson & C. Lawson) is an economically and ecologically important conifer that has a wide geographic range in the western USA, but is mostly absent from the geographic centre of its distribution - the Great Basin and adjoining mountain ranges. Much of its modern range was achieved by migration of geographically distinct Sierra Nevada (P. ponderosa var. ponderosa) and Rocky Mountain (P. ponderosa var. scopulorum) varieties in the last 10,000 years. Previous research has confirmed genetic differences between the two varieties, and measurable genetic exchange occurs where their ranges now overlap in western Montana. A variety of approaches in bioclimatic modelling is required to explore the ecological differences between these varieties and their implications for historical biogeography and impending changes in western landscapes.
Location? Western USA.
Methods? We used a classification tree analysis and a minimum-volume ellipsoid as models to explain the broad patterns of distribution of ponderosa pine in modern environments using climatic and edaphic variables. Most biogeographical modelling assumes that the target group represents a single, ecologically uniform taxonomic population. Classification tree analysis does not require this assumption because it allows the creation of pathways that predict multiple positive and negative outcomes. Thus, classification tree analysis can be used to test the ecological uniformity of the species. In addition, a multidimensional ellipsoid was constructed to describe the niche of each variety of ponderosa pine, and distances from the niche were calculated and mapped on a 4-km grid for each ecological variable.
Results? The resulting classification tree identified three dominant pathways predicting ponderosa pine presence. Two of these three pathways correspond roughly to the distribution of var. ponderosa, and the third pathway generally corresponds to the distribution of var. scopulorum. The classification tree and minimum-volume ellipsoid model show that both varieties have very similar temperature limitations, although var. ponderosa is more limited by the temperature extremes of the continental interior. The precipitation limitations of the two varieties are seasonally different, with var. ponderosa requiring significant winter moisture and var. scopulorum requiring significant summer moisture. Great Basin mountain ranges are too cold at higher elevations to support either variety of ponderosa pine, and at lower elevations are too dry in summer for var. scopulorum and too dry in winter for var. ponderosa.
Main conclusions? The classification tree analysis indicates that var. ponderosa is ecologically as well as genetically distinct from var. scopulorum. Ecological differences may maintain genetic separation in spite of a limited zone of introgression between the two varieties in western Montana. Two hypotheses about past and future movements of ponderosa pine emerge from our analyses. The first hypothesis is that, during the last glacial period, colder and/or drier summers truncated most of the range of var. scopulorum in the central Rockies, but had less dramatic effects on the more maritime and winter-wet distribution of var. ponderosa. The second hypothesis is that, all other factors held constant, increasing summer temperatures in the future should produce changes in the distribution of var. scopulorum that are likely to involve range expansions in the central Rockies with the warming of mountain ranges currently too cold but sufficiently wet in summer for var. scopulorum. Finally, our results underscore the growing need to focus on genotypes in biogeographical modelling and ecological forecasting.