The effects of ecology and climate change on the conservation of eastern Himalayan avifauna
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The existence of biodiversity is central to all biological sciences, and especially ecology. Without it, an entire branch of knowledge would cease to exist. Despite this centrality, there is considerable debate on the mechanisms that create and maintain diversity. This is especially true of high-diversity areas. There is also considerable debate on how we can best protect biodiversity, in order to allow the science of biology to flourish into the future. Here, I present an investigation of the processes that allow biodiversity to be maintained in the Eastern Himalayas, a critically understudied high-diversity region, as well as a systematic analysis of the conservation priorities there. I focus on birds as a charismatic, speciose and conspicuous set of taxa. I spent several months gathering fine-scale occurrence data for the breeding bird community in Arunachal Pradesh, a state in Northeast India that is at the heart of the Eastern Himalayan ecoregion. Using this data, I first show that bird species on the steep elevational gradient present in the region segregate into narrow elevational bands. I also show that this segregation can best be explained by evolutionary processes resulting from interspecies competition in the long term, and by continued interspecies competition in the short term. I then go on to demonstrate that these narrow ranges of climate tolerance will be greatly affected by climate change, with species’ ranges shifting and contracting over the next 50 years. Moreover, when interspecies competition is taken to account, these extent of these predicted changes is intensified. Finally, I use these predicted distributions to create a spatially explicit map of conservation priorities. I present alternatives based on different conservation goals, as well as different projections of the extent of global climate change. I also present an idealized map of areas most in need of protection, and compare that to the existing set of formally protected areas. Taken in their entirety, these studies present a cogent explanation for the existence of high biodiversity in one of the most special regions of the planet, as well as a roadmap toward protecting that diversity for future generations.