Climate drives loss of phylogenetic diversity in a grassland community

Authors: Daijiang Li, Jesse E. D. Miller, and Susan Harrison

While climate change has already profoundly influenced biodiversity through local extinctions, range shifts, and altered interactions, its effects on the evolutionary history contained within sets of coexisting species—or phylogenetic community diversity—have yet to be documented. Phylogenetic community diversity may be a proxy for the diversity of functional strategies that can help sustain ecological systems in the face of disturbances. Under climatic warming, phylogenetic diversity may be especially vulnerable to decline in plant communities in warm, water-limited regions, as intensified water stress eliminates drought-intolerant species that may be relicts of past wetter climates and may be distantly related to coexisting species. Here, we document a 19-y decline of phylogenetic diversity in a grassland community as moisture became less abundant and predictable at a critical time of the year. This decline was strongest in native forbs, particularly those with high specific leaf area, a trait indicating drought sensitivity. This decline occurred at the small spatial scale where species interact, but the larger regional community has so far been buffered against loss of phylogenetic diversity by its high levels of physical and biotic heterogeneity.

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