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Ecology. 2010 Jul;91(7):1877-84.

Squeezed at the top: Interspecific aggression may constrain elevational ranges in tropical birds.

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Department of Biology, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida 32611-8525, USA.


Tropical montane species are characterized by narrow elevational distributions. Recent perspectives on mechanisms maintaining these restricted distributions have emphasized abiotic processes, but biotic processes may also play a role in their establishment or maintenance. One historically popular hypothesis, especially for birds, is that interspecific competition constrains ranges of closely related species that "replace" each other along elevational gradients. Supporting evidence, however, is based on patterns of occurrence and does not reveal potential mechanisms. We experimentally tested a prediction of this hypothesis in two genera of tropical songbirds, Catharus (Turdidae) and Henicorhina (Troglodytidae), in which species have nonoverlapping elevational distributions. Using heterospecific playback trials, we found that individuals at replacement zones showed aggressive territorial behavior in response to songs of congeners. As distance from replacement zones increased, aggression toward congener song decreased, suggesting a learned component to interspecific aggression. Additionally, aggressive responses in Catharus were asymmetric, indicating interspecific dominance. These results provide experimental evidence consistent with the hypothesis that interspecific competitive interactions restrict ranges of Neotropical birds. Our results also underscore the need to consider biotic processes, such as competition, when predicting how species' ranges will shift with climate change. Asymmetric aggression could be particularly important. For example, if warming in montane landscapes allows upslope range expansion by dominant competitors, then high-elevation subordinate species could be forced into progressively smaller mountaintop habitats, jeopardizing viability of their populations.

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