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Disturbance and distributions: avoiding exclusion in a warming world

Douglas Sheil, Department of Ecology and Natural Resource Management (INA), Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU)


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I highlight how disturbance determines species distributions and the implications for conservation practice. In particular, I describe opportunities to mitigate some of the threats to species resulting from climate change. Ecological theory shows that disturbance processes can often slow or prevent the exclusion of species by competitors and that different disturbance regimes result in different realized niches. There is much evidence of disturbance influencing where species occur. For example, disturbance can lower the high elevation treeline, thus expanding the area for high elevation vegetation that cannot otherwise persist under tree cover. The role of disturbance in influencing interspecific competition and resulting species persistence and distributions appears unjustly neglected. I identify various implications, including opportunities to achieve in situ conservation by expanding plant species ranges and reducing species vulnerability to competitive exclusion. Suitable frequencies, scales, intensities, spatial configurations, and timings of the right forms of disturbance can improve the persistence of targeted species in a wide range of contexts. Such options could reduce the extinctions likely to be associated with climate change. More generally, these mechanisms and the resulting realizable niche also offer novel insights to understanding and manipulating species distributions.

Key words

coexistence; competition-colonization trade-off; competitive displacement; competitive hierarchy; elevation; intermediate-disturbance-hypothesis; source-sink dynamics; succession

Copyright © 2016 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087