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Complex patterns of temperature sensitivity, not ecological traits, dictate diverse species responses to climate change

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Despite widespread interest in describing and forecasting the impacts of climate change on species distributions, poor understanding of the climate variables that shape distributions and conflicting perspectives on the role that species traits play in mediating shifts have limited our ability to interpret and project changes in species distributions. Using standardized survey data along the northeast US continental shelf, we assessed the historical exposure and sensitivity of 81 species of marine chordates, arthropods, and molluscs to 24 sea surface temperature (SST) variables in two seasons. By comparing temperature trends in geographies available to species against temperature trends in geographies used by them we were able to identify which variables species track consistently through space and time. Logistic regression analyses were then used to assess whether species traits affected the likelihood of niche tracking while accounting for the season and temporal window in which temperatures were summarized and methodological constraints that might have limited our ability to detect tracking responses. A slight majority of species (52%) clearly shifted their distributions to track at least one temperature variable through space and time. Tracking rates were much lower on a per variable basis (5.1% of 3432 variables), despite widespread exposure to changing temperatures (89.2% of 3432 variables). None of the twelve ecological traits we investigated – including traits related to dispersal ability, ecological specialization, reproductive capacity, and commercial harvest – accounted for differences in tracking responses across species even after accounting for differences in climate exposure. Our results suggest widespread behavioral or physiological flexibility among our study species, or ongoing genetic adaptation to changing temperatures. They also suggest that divergent selection on climate sensitivities of close relatives may limit the utility of ecological traits for predicting distributional responses to future climate change.
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Keywords: climate change; exposure; northeast US continental shelf; scale; sea surface temperature; sensitivity; species distribution

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: January 1, 2019

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