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Sci Total Environ. 2017 Jul 15;590-591:686-694. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2017.03.027. Epub 2017 Mar 9.

Climate change will seriously impact bird species dwelling above the treeline: A prospective study for the Italian Alps.

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BirdLife International - Lipu (Lega Italiana Protezione Uccelli), Conservation Department, Via Udine 3/a, I-43122 Parma, Italy.
Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, College of Arts and Sciences, Qatar University, P.O. Box 2713, Doha, Qatar. Electronic address:


High mountain systems are predicted to be especially vulnerable to the impact of climate change, with the climatically-constrained tree limit rapidly shifted upslope. In turn, the impact of upward treeline migration on mountain-dwelling bird species is expected to significantly reduce habitat suitability. We developed the first projection of the expected climate-driven rise of the whole treeline (19,256km) of the Italian Alps. The study area extends over 20,700km2, ranging over 550km in longitude and 320km in latitude. We then investigated how much the expected treeline rise will induce a) shrinking and shifting of the elevation range and b) loss in suitable habitat for the flagship species rock ptarmigan, an alpine bird species dwelling above the treeline and, similarly to many other alpine species, highly vulnerable to treeline rise. We also investigated the potential gain in suitable habitat for rock ptarmigan due to the climate-driven upshift in the uppermost thermal limit. At lower altitudes (1500-1600m a.s.l.), the average expected upshift in the current treeline resulted in 195, 274 and 354m over the short (2010-2039), medium (2040-2069) and long term (2070-2099) respectively. Above 2400m a.s.l., it was less than 30m even in the long term. Overall, during the three climate periods the extent of suitable habitat for rock ptarmigan above the current treeline is projected to decrease by 28.12%, 38.43% and 49.11% respectively. In contrast, the expected gain in suitable habitat due to the shift in the uppermost thermal limit will be severely restrained by the limited surface extension in the top portion of the Italian Alps. The presented approach can promote similar studies elsewhere in the globe, providing a regional perspective to the projection of climate change impact on bird species dwelling above the treeline.


Alpine birds; Elevation range shrinking; Group method of data handling; Habitat loss; Thermal limit; Treeline rise

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