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2023 | Will Frugivores Enable Appalachian Plants to Track Climate Change?

Thrush on branch in winter with red berries

FACULTY SEED GRANT | Global Change Center

Will frugivores enable Appalachian plants to track climate change?


  • Dr. Haldre Rogers, Fish and Wildlife Conservation
  • Dr. Susan Whitehead, Biological Sciences
  • Dr. Ashley Peele, Fish and Wildlife Conservation

Species distribution modeling is commonly used to estimate the current range and future projected range of species in a changing environment (1). Typically, these models describe a species’ climatic niche by associating the presence or absence of the species with environmental data, then simulate changes in abiotic conditions and predict associated changes in the species’ range (1). Given that the planet is warming, the distribution of suitable habitat for many plant species is predicted to change (2), yet the ability of plants to reach newly available habitat is largely unknown because seed dispersal is rarely incorporated into these models (3). 

Globally, about 50% of plants are dispersed by animals (4). Many populations of birds and mammals, which are important seed dispersers, are in decline and predicted to decline further with warming (5,6). In addition, the loss of megafauna during the Pleistocene may have orphaned a handful of species from their dispersers, and likely reduced long-distance dispersal for many plant species (7). A recent modeling study reported that more than half of plant species globally may have already lost the ability to track climate change due to the loss of seed dispersers (8), yet few studies have explored this empirically. One of the biggest limitations to studying animal-mediated seed dispersal in plants is a lack of data on fruit-frugivore interactions. 

In this project, we propose to collect data on fruit-frugivore interactions at three different sites in the Appalachian Mountains. With the data we collect , we will 1) Create a fruit-frugivore interaction network for each site-elevation combination. 2) Identify a few focal plant species with limited elevational and latitudinal distributions (i.e. species with range edges in the region). For these species and their dispersers, develop climate envelope models to predict suitable habitat in 50 years, and determine whether their dispersers will effectively facilitate climate tracking. 3) Use trait data to identify novel fruit-frugivore interactions under future climate scenarios that may facilitate movement (12). 

Reference citations for project proposal description available upon request.