Theses Doctoral

Environmental drivers of bird species occupancy in a tropical montane biodiversity hotspot

Ramesh, Vijay

A long-standing question in ecology is understanding how the environment structures species occupancy in space and time. Specifically, identifying associations between environmental drivers - climate and land cover - and species occupancy is crucial to predicting species distributional dynamics in the future. Over the last century, research on the abiotic drivers of species occupancy has largely focused on temperate regions. Tropical mountain ecosystems harbor extraordinary levels of diversity and face some of the highest anthropogenic pressures of climate and land cover change.

Yet, such regions have remained historically understudied. Bird species, due to their sheer diversity and occurrence across climatic zones and land cover types, are an ideal model for understanding how climate and land cover structure occupancy in space and time. The goal of this dissertation is to disentangle spatial and temporal associations between environmental drivers - climate and land cover - and bird species occupancy along a tropical montane gradient. I use an integrative approach that relies on citizen science, historical ecology, and bioacoustics to study bird communities in the Western Ghats biodiversity hotspot of southern India.

In Chapter 1, we used observations from the world’s largest citizen science database, eBird, to ask how contemporary climate and land cover are associated with bird species occupancy across the Nilgiri and the Anamalai hills of the Western Ghats. We show that the occupancy of several forest specialist birds was negatively associated with temperature seasonality, highlighting narrow thermal niches for such species. We also show that a small number of generalist bird species are positively associated with human-modified land cover types.

In Chapter 2, we combined colonial-era and modern datasets on bird species observations and land cover to ask how a century of landscape change across the Nilgiri hills has impacted bird communities. Between 1848 and 2017, 75% of grassland habitat across the Nilgiri hills was lost toward timber plantation and cash crop expansion. Such drastic declines in grassland habitat have resulted in declines in species persistence and relative abundance of grassland specialist birds over the last century. As a result, the functional trait space has undergone biotic homogenization.

In Chapter 3, we ask if the reversal of landscape changes significantly affects bird communities. Using passive acoustic monitoring, we examined the impacts of ecological restoration on bird communities and other vocalizing fauna along a gradient of forest regeneration (consisting of actively restored, naturally regenerating, and mature benchmark sites) in the Anamalai hills. Encouragingly, we show that the bird community composition of actively restored sites is transitioning toward mature benchmark sites. However, when we moved beyond birds, we found that vocalizations at higher frequencies (> 12 kHz) were largely missing from actively restored and naturally regenerating sites, while the same frequency space was occupied in mature benchmark sites.

Taken together, we find that climate and land cover are key determinants of bird species occupancy in the Western Ghats, and in a globally changing world, conservation interventions such as ecological restoration along with the preservation of naturally occurring land cover types are key to sustaining montane avifauna in the long run.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology
Thesis Advisors
DeFries, Ruth S.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 12, 2023