Repeated surveying over 6 years reveals that fine-scale habitat variables are key to tropical mountain ant assemblage composition and functional diversity
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High-altitude-adapted ectotherms can escape competition from dominant species by tolerating low temperatures at cooler elevations, but climate change is eroding such advantages. Studies evaluating broad-scale impacts of global change for high-altitude organisms often overlook the mitigating role of biotic factors. Yet, at fine spatial-scales, vegetation-associated microclimates provide refuges from climatic extremes. Using one of the largest standardised data sets collected to date, we tested how ant species composition and functional diversity (i.e., the range and value of species traits found within assemblages) respond to large-scale abiotic factors (altitude, aspect), and fine-scale factors (vegetation, soil structure) along an elevational gradient in tropical Africa. Altitude emerged as the principal factor explaining species composition. Analysis of nestedness and turnover components of beta diversity indicated that ant assemblages are specific to each elevation, so species are not filtered out but replaced with new species as elevation increases. Similarity of assemblages over time (assessed using beta decay) did not change significantly at low and mid elevations but declined at the highest elevations. Assemblages also differed between northern and southern mountain aspects, although at highest elevations, composition was restricted to a set of species found on both aspects. Functional diversity was not explained by large scale variables like elevation, but by factors associated with elevation that operate at fine scales (i.e., temperature and habitat structure). Our findings highlight the significance of fine-scale variables in predicting organisms’ responses to changing temperature, offering management possibilities that might dilute climate change impacts, and caution when predicting assemblage responses using climate models, alone.
- RESEARCH: Foord, S