Aim: We propose that forest trees create a vertical dimension for ecological niche variation that generates different regimes of climatic exposure, which in turn drives species elevation distributions. We test this hypothesis by statistically modelling the vertical and elevation distributions and microclimate exposure of rainforest ants.
Location: Wet Tropics Bioregion, Australia.
Methods: We conducted 60 ground-to-canopy surveys to determine the vertical (tree) and elevation distributions, and microclimate exposure of ants (101 species) at 15 sites along four mountain ranges. We statistically modelled elevation range size as a function of ant species’ vertical niche breadth and exposure to temperature variance for 55 species found at two or more trees.
Results: We found a positive association between vertical niche and elevation range of ant species: for every 3 m increase in vertical niche breadth, our models predict a ~150% increase in mean elevation range size. Temperature variance increased with vertical height along the arboreal gradient and ant species exposure to temperature variance explained some of the variation in elevation range size.
Main conclusions: We demonstrate that arboreal ants have broader elevation ranges than ground-dwelling ants and are likely to have increased resilience to climatic variance. The capacity of species to expand their niche by climbing trees could influence their ability to persist over broader elevation ranges. We propose that wherever vertical layering exists—from oceans to forest ecosystems—vertical niche breadth is a potential mechanism driving macrogeographic distributional patterns and resilience to climate change.