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Oecologia

, Volume 168, Issue 4, pp 889–899 | Cite as

The limit to the distribution of a rainforest marsupial folivore is consistent with the thermal intolerance hypothesis

  • Andrew K. Krockenberger
  • Will Edwards
  • John Kanowski
Physiological ecology - Original Paper

Abstract

Models of impacts of climate change on species are generally based on correlations between current distributions and climatic variables, rather than a detailed understanding of the mechanisms that actually limit distribution. Many of the vertebrates endemic to rainforests of northeastern Australia are restricted to upland forests and considered to be threatened by climate change. However, for most of these species, the factors controlling their distributions are unknown. We examined the role of thermal intolerance as a possible mechanism limiting the distribution of Pseudochirops archeri (green ringtail possum), a specialist arboreal folivore restricted to rainforests above an altitude of 300 m in Australia’s Wet Tropics. We measured short-term metabolic responses to a range of ambient temperatures, and found that P. archeri stores heat when ambient temperatures exceed 30°C, reducing water requirements for evaporative cooling. Due to the rate at which body temperature increases with ambient temperatures >30°C, this strategy is not effective over periods longer than 5 h. We hypothesise that the distribution of P. archeri is limited by interactions between (i) the duration and severity of extreme ambient temperatures (over 30°C), (ii) the scarcity of free water in the rainforest canopy in the dry season, and (iii) constraints on water intake from foliage imposed by plant secondary metabolites and fibre. We predict that dehydration becomes limiting for P. archeri where extreme ambient temperatures (>30°C) persist for more than 5 h per day over 4–6 days or more. Consistent with our hypothesis, the abundance of P. archeri in the field is correlated with the occurrence of extreme temperatures, declining markedly at sites where the average maximum temperature of the warmest week of the year is above 30°C. Assuming the mechanism of limitation is based on extreme temperatures, we expect impacts of climate change on P. archeri to occur in discrete, rapid events rather than as a slow contraction in range.

Keywords

Climate change Limits to distribution Metabolic rate Plant secondary metabolites Temperature extremes Water availability 

Notes

Acknowledgments

We would like to thank the Nasser family for permission to study the possums on their property, and our volunteers, especially Steve McKenna, for assistance with fieldwork. Thanks to Dr John Winter for discussion and stimulating this work, Dr David Westcott, Dr Chris Margules and CSIRO TFRI Atherton for providing laboratory space for the respirometry, and the reviewers for comments that helped us to improve the manuscript. The laboratory measurements were funded by the James Cook University Merit Research Grant Scheme and Rainforest CRC, and ongoing analysis by the Marine and Tropical Sciences Research Facility. The climate data were provided by the Spatial Modelling and Data Exchange project of the Rainforest CRC using the ANUCLIM software and data developed by the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies at the Australian National University. This study complied with the legal and ethical requirements of the state of Queensland, and was conducted under approvals from the JCU Animal Ethics Committee (A856) and Queensland EPA (WISP01557603).

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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Andrew K. Krockenberger
    • 1
  • Will Edwards
    • 2
  • John Kanowski
    • 3
  1. 1.Centre for Tropical Biodiversity and Climate Change, School of Marine and Tropical BiologyJames Cook UniversityCairnsAustralia
  2. 2.School of Marine and Tropical BiologyJames Cook UniversityCairnsAustralia
  3. 3.Australian Wildlife Conservancy, North-east Australia, and Environmental Futures CentreGriffith UniversityNathanAustralia

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