A difficult and new path into the future for North American trees? At least there's no ice in the way this time

Submitted by editor on 26 February 2016. Get the paper!

By David Roberts

Many scientists have taken to looking back in time to learn about species adaptations to the future. And while not a perfect analogue for future changes, the past can offer lessons in species adaptive or migratory capacities. In this study, we sought to capture the patterns of past tree species migrations in western North America and compare them to their anticipated future requirements. Using a newly developed climate change velocity algorithm paired with species range reconstructions and projections from species distribution models, we looked at patterns of post-glacial and future migration requirements at the species level.


Our results suggest that, as climate warmed through the Holocene, some populations were required to move northward across large expanses of open land while others found suitable habitat just up-slope in mountainous terrain. Persistence through future climate change, however, may require notably different migration patterns for some populations. For example, where no further habitat is available up-slope for high-elevation populations of whitebark pine, large jumps to distant mountain-tops or more northern regions may be required.


While they remain imperfect tools, species distribution models and landscape-level climate analyses can help us identify species, or better yet, populations of species, at highest risk for maladaptation under future climates due to their potential inability to track suitable habitats. Such information can help conservationists and managers develop effective adaptation strategies for the future.