Collapse of a desert bird community over the past century driven by climate change.Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2018; 115(34):8597-8602PN
Climate change has caused deserts, already defined by climatic extremes, to warm and dry more rapidly than other ecoregions in the contiguous United States over the last 50 years. Desert birds persist near the edge of their physiological limits, and climate change could cause lethal dehydration and hyperthermia, leading to decline or extirpation of some species. We evaluated how desert birds have responded to climate and habitat change by resurveying historic sites throughout the Mojave Desert that were originally surveyed for avian diversity during the early 20th century by Joseph Grinnell and colleagues. We found strong evidence of an avian community in collapse. Sites lost on average 43% of their species, and occupancy probability declined significantly for 39 of 135 breeding birds. The common raven was the only native species to substantially increase across survey sites. Climate change, particularly decline in precipitation, was the most important driver of site-level persistence, while habitat change had a secondary influence. Habitat preference and diet were the two most important species traits associated with occupancy change. The presence of surface water reduced the loss of site-level richness, creating refugia. The collapse of the avian community over the past century may indicate a larger imbalance in the Mojave and provide an early warning of future ecosystem disintegration, given climate models unanimously predict an increasingly dry and hot future.