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Predicted range shifts in North American boreal forest birds and the effect of climate change on genetic diversity in blackpoll warblers (Setophaga striata)


Joel Ralston

Jeremy Kirchman

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Year of Publication:
Secondary Title:
Conservation Genetics


As North American species' ranges shift northward in response to climate change, populations isolated in high-elevation habitat "islands" at the southern edge of distributions are predicted to decrease in size or be extirpated. Levels of genetic structure and gene flow and the number of private alleles held within these peripheral populations can be used as a measure of the potential loss of genetic diversity due to climate change. We use GIS-based climate niche models to project geographic distributions of 15 boreal forest bird species for the year 2080 under two carbon emissions scenarios to predict the extent to which ranges will shift, leading to the extirpation of isolated populations at the southern periphery of the boreal forest. Breeding distributions of nearly all boreal bird species are predicted to expand as they shift northward, but will dramatically decrease or be completely lost from mountain populations in New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire by 2080. To examine the effect of these shifts on gene pools of migratory bird species we genotyped 178 blackpoll warblers (Setophaga striata) at nine microsatellite loci, sampling four imperiled high-elevation populations and four northern populations. In S. striata 10.4 % of microsatellite alleles were confined to populations expected to be lost due to climate change. However, these accounted for a nonsignificant percent of the genetic structure, and loss of these alleles would not significantly erode species heterozygosity or allelic richness. Our results indicate that isolated southern populations of S. striata, and possibly other migratory species with high gene flow, do not represent genetically isolated, independently evolving units. Efforts to mitigate the effect of climate change on boreal forest birds should focus on species in which peripheral populations harbor significant genetic diversity.