Nowhere to go but uphill

ResearchBlogging.orgHistorical data sets are invaluable in assessing the impact of climate change on natural systems. Case in point: in today’s issue of Science, a new paper uses a century-old survey of small mammals in Yosemite National Park to see how the park’s community has shifted as climate warmed [$-a].

Belding’s ground squirrels contracted their
high-altitude range as climate warmed.

Photo by infinite wilderness.

Moritz et al. repeated a survey of small mammals – chipmunks, shrews, ground squirrels, and the like – originally conducted by the biologist Joseph Grinnell between 1914 and 1920. Since that time, average minimum monthly temperatures in the Yosemite area have increased approximately three degrees Centigrade (five and a half degrees Fahrenheit), and Moritz et al. found significant changes in the distributions of small mammals associated with that warming.

In the face of warming temperatures, the easiest thing for animals to do is move up to the cooler climes at higher elevations, and this is what many species did. Those at lower elevations expanded their ranges uphill. But small mammals already living at high elevations, like the aptly named Alpine Chipmunk (Tamias alpinus) have nowhere cooler to go – so their ranges contracted over the last century. As the globe warms up, this pattern is likely being repeated in ecosystems everywhere – not a happy prospect for critters that live at high elevations.


C Moritz, JL Patton, CJ Conroy, JL Parra, GC White, SR Beissinger (2008). Impact of a Century of Climate Change on Small-Mammal Communities in Yosemite National Park, USA. Science, 322, 261-4 DOI: 10.1126/science.1163428