The consequences of climate change for ecosystem structure and function remain largely unknown. Here, I examine the ability of climate variation to explain long-term changes in bird and plant populations, as well as trophic interactions in a high-elevation riparian system in central Arizona, USA, based on 20 years of study. Abundances of dominant deciduous trees have declined dramatically over the 20 years, correlated with a decline in overwinter snowfall. Snowfall can affect overwinter presence of elk, whose browsing can significantly impact deciduous tree abundance. Thus, climate may affect the plant community indirectly through effects on herbivores, but may also act directly by influencing water availability for plants. Seven species of birds were found to initiate earlier breeding associated with an increase in spring temperature across years. The advance in breeding time did not affect starvation of young or clutch size. Earlier breeding also did not increase the length of the breeding season for single-brooded species, but did for multi-brooded species. Yet, none of these phenology-related changes was associated with bird population trends. Climate had much larger consequences for these seven bird species by affecting trophic levels below (plants) and above (predators) the birds. In particular, the climate-related declines in deciduous vegetation led to decreased abundance of preferred bird habitat and increased nest predation rates. In addition, summer precipitation declined over time, and drier summers also were further associated with greater nest predation in all species. The net result was local extinction and severe population declines in some previously common bird species, whereas one species increased strongly in abundance, and two species did not show clear population changes. These data indicate that climate can alter ecosystem structure and function through complex pathways that include direct and indirect effects on abundances and interactions of multiple trophic components. ?? 2007 by the Ecological Society of America.
Additional publication details
Climate correlates of 20 years of trophic changes in a high-elevation riparian system