Fern species richness and abundance are indicators of climate change on high-elevation islands: evidence from an elevational gradient on Tahiti (French Polynesia)
Inherent characteristics of island species make them particularly susceptible to anthropogenic changes and need to be assessed to implement appropriate conservation strategies. The impacts of climate change are increasingly being investigated along elevational gradients since they provide natural laboratories to study how species respond to climatic variation. Ferns are particularly sensitive to air humidity and temperature and are therefore potentially useful as bio-indicators. This study addresses the question of whether the distributions of fern species richness and abundance have climatic correlates along an elevational gradient on the tropical volcanic island of Tahiti (French Polynesia). Analyses were conducted on two datasets: island-wide richness was estimated using published data on species elevational ranges, and local richness and abundance were addressed through a transect survey. Correlations with water availability, temperature, area availability, and a randomly-generated species richness pattern were investigated. Results showed that both diversity and abundance varied in association with climate. Rainfall was collinear with diversity in the lower half of the elevational gradient (R2 = 0.97), while temperature was the most important climatic correlate for diversity in the upper half (R2 = 0.98). The number of terrestrial fern individuals and epiphytic fern cover were both correlated with temperature (R2 = 0.86 and 0.81, respectively). Our results imply that impacts of climate change on ferns on Tahiti might include change in diversity and abundance, and increased extinction risk due to low overlap between current and projected species distributions. Ferns represent important indicator organisms that can be used to study species distributional responses to climate change in island ecosystems.