Anthropogenic impacts drive niche and conservation metrics of a cryptic rattlesnake on the colorado plateau of Western North America

M. R. Douglas, M. A. Davis, M. Amarello, J. J. Smith, G. W. Schuett, H. W. Herrmann, A. T. Holycross, M. E. Douglas

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Ecosystems transition quickly in the Anthropocene, whereas biodiversity adapts more slowly. Here we simulated a shifting woodland ecosystem on the Colorado Plateau of western North America by using as its proxy over space and time the fundamental niche of the Arizona black rattlesnake (Crotalus cerberus). We found an expansive (=end-of-Pleistocene) range that contracted sharply (=present), but is blocked topographically by Grand Canyon/Colorado River as it shifts predictably northwestward under moderate climate change (=2080). Vulnerability to contemporary wildfire was quantified from available records, with forested area reduced more than 27% over 13 years. Both ‘ecosystem metrics’ underscore how climate and wildfire are rapidly converting the Plateau ecosystem into novel habitat. To gauge potential effects on C. cerberus, we derived a series of relevant ‘conservation metrics’ (i.e. genetic variability, dispersal capacity, effective population size) by sequencing 118 individuals across 846 bp of mitochondrial (mt)DNA-ATPase8/6. We identified five significantly different clades (net sequence divergence=2.2%) isolated by drainage/topography, with low dispersal (FST =0.82) and small sizes (2Nef =5.2). Our compiled metrics (i.e. small-populations, topographic-isolation, lowdispersal versus conserved-niche, vulnerable-ecosystem, dispersal barriers) underscore the susceptibility of this woodland specialist to a climate and wildfire tandem. We offer adaptive management scenarios that may counterbalance these metrics and avoid the extirpation of this and other highly specialized, relictual woodland clades.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number160047
Pages (from-to)UNSP 160047
JournalRoyal Society Open Science
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 27 2016


  • Climate change
  • Crotalus cerberus
  • Drainage vicariance
  • Environmental niche modelling
  • Wildfire

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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