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Species distributions have often been assumed to represent climatic limitations, yet recent evidence has challenged these assumptions and emphasized the potential importance of biotic interactions, dispersal limitation, and disturbance. Despite significant investigation into these factors, an integrated understanding of where and when they may be important is lacking. Here, we review evidence for the factors underlying the historical and contemporary distributions of North American tree species and argue that a cohesive conceptual framework must be informed by an understanding of species ecological and evolutionary history. We further demonstrate that available evidence offers little indication of a significant, independent influence of biotic interactions or dispersal limitation on species distributions. Disturbance may provide important constraints on distributions in limited contexts. Overall, historic and contemporary evidence suggests that species distributions are strongly influenced by climate, yet examples of disequilibrium with climate abound. We propose that differences among life stages and the impacts of human land use may contribute to explain these inconsistencies and are deserving of greater research attention.


Originally published at:

Copenhaver-Parry, P. E., B. N. Shuman, and D. B. Tinker. 2017. Toward an improved conceptual understanding of North American tree species distributions. Ecosphere 8(6):e01853. 10.1002/ecs2.1853