Reference Work Entry

Global Environmental Change

Volume 1 of the series Handbook of Global Environmental Pollution pp 341-347


Distribution of Terrestrial Ecosystems and Changes in Plant Community Composition

  • Michael J. SchusterAffiliated withDepartment of Forestry and Natural Resources, Purdue University Email author 
  • , Lorena Torres MartinezAffiliated withDepartment of Biological Sciences, Purdue University
  • , Jeffrey S. DukesAffiliated withDepartment of Forestry and Natural Resources, Department of Biological Sciences, Purdue University


Plant communities have been transformed by global changes such as land-use change and biological invasion in recent decades, and climate change will drive further transformation in the coming decades. Plant species can respond to changing climates by shifting their ranges to new areas in order to track optimal conditions and/or by adapting to these changes in situ. Future climates have the potential to alter species’ productivity, phenology, and biotic interactions. In addition, species’ ranges are expected to shift towards higher latitudes, tracking favorable climate conditions as the planet warms. The same trend is expected along altitudinal gradients, where species are expected to move uphill. However, distributions of communities and ecosystems depend on their individual species’ responses to climate change and are therefore more complicated to predict. Future plant community assemblages will differ from the ones that have existed historically, and these changes could themselves influence the rate of global climate change.


Terrestrial ecosystem distribution Plant community composition Distributional shifts Niche envelope models Biotic interactions Niche evolution Adaptive potential