Old-growth forests buffer climate-sensitive bird populations from warming

Publications Type: 
Journal Article
Publication Number: 

Betts, Matthew G.; Phalan, Ben; Frey, Sarah J. K.; Rousseau, Josée S.; Yang, Zhiqiang. 2018. Old-growth forests buffer climate-sensitive bird populations from warming. Diversity and Distributions. 24(4): 439-447. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/ddi.12688


Aim: Habitat loss and climate change constitute two of the greatest threats to biodiversity worldwide, and theory predicts that these factors may act synergistically to affect population trajectories. Recent evidence indicates that structurally complex old-growth forest can be cooler than other forest types during spring and summer months, thereby offering potential to buffer populations from negative effects of warming. Old growth may also have higher food and nest-site availability for certain species, which could have disproportionate fitness benefits as species approach their thermal limits.
Location: Pacific Northwestern United States.
Methods: We predicted that negative effects of climate change on 30-year population trends of old-growth-associated birds should be dampened in landscapes with high proportions of old-growth forest. We modelled population trends from Breeding Bird Survey data for 13 species as a function of temperature change and proportion old-growth forest.
Results: We found a significant negative effect of summer warming on only two species. However, in both of these species, this relationship between warming and population decline was not only reduced but reversed, in old-growth-dominated landscapes. Across all 13 species, evidence for a buffering effect of old-growth forest increased with the degree to which species were negatively influenced by summer warming.
Main conclusions: These findings suggest that old-growth forests may buffer the negative effects of climate change for those species that are most sensitive to temperature increases. Our study highlights a mechanism whereby management strategies to curb degradation and loss of old-growth forests—in addition to protecting habitat—could enhance biodiversity persistence in the face of climate warming.
Keywords: bird populations; climate; habitat loss; land cover; old-growth forest; synergistic effects