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When winners become losers: Predicted nonlinear responses of arctic birds to increasing woody vegetation

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Full Publication:

Product Type: Journal Article

Year: 2016

Authors: Thompson, S. J., C. M. Handel, R. M. Richardson, and L. B. McNew

Suggested Citation:
Thompson, S. J., C. M. Handel, R. M. Richardson, and L. B. McNew. 2016. When winners become losers: Predicted nonlinear responses of arctic birds to increasing woody vegetation. PLoS One 11(11):e0164755. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0164755


Climate change is facilitating rapid changes in the composition and distribution of vegetation at northern latitudes, raising questions about the responses of wildlife that rely on arctic ecosystems. One widely observed change occurring in arctic tundra ecosystems is an increasing dominance of deciduous shrub vegetation. Our goals were to examine the tolerance of arctic-nesting bird species to existing gradients of vegetation along the boreal forest-tundra ecotone, to predict the abundance of species across different heights and densities of shrubs, and to identify species that will be most or least responsive to ongoing expansion of shrubs in tundra ecosystems. We conducted 1,208 point counts on 12 study blocks from 2012-2014 in northwestern Alaska, using repeated surveys to account for imperfect detection of birds. We considered the importance of shrub height, density of low and tall shrubs (i.e. shrubs >0.5 m tall), percent of ground cover attributed to shrubs (including dwarf shrubs <0.5 m tall), and percent of herbaceous plant cover in predicting bird abundance. Among 17 species considered, only gray-cheeked thrush (Catharus minimus) abundance was associated with the highest values of all shrub metrics in its top predictive model. All other species either declined in abundance in response to one or more shrub metrics or reached a threshold where further increases in shrubs did not contribute to greater abundance. In many instances the relationship between avian abundance and shrubs was nonlinear, with predicted abundance peaking at moderate values of the covariate, then declining at high values. In particular, a large number of species were responsive to increasing values of average shrub height with six species having highest abundance at near-zero values of shrub height and abundance of four other species decreasing once heights reached moderate values (≤ 33 cm). Our findings suggest that increases in shrub cover and density will negatively affect abundance of only a few bird species and may potentially be beneficial for many others. As shrub height increases further, however, a considerable number of tundra bird species will likely find habitat increasingly unsuitable.

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