Human Impacts Flatten Rainforest-Savanna Gradient and Reduce Adaptive Diversity in a Rainforest Bird

Adam H. Freedman, Wolfgang Buermann, Edward T. A. Mitchard, Ruth S. DeFries, Thomas B. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Ecological gradients have long been recognized as important regions for diversification and speciation. However, little attention has been paid to the evolutionary consequences or conservation implications of human activities that fundamentally change the environmental features of such gradients. Here we show that recent deforestation in West Africa has homogenized the rainforest-savanna gradient, causing a loss of adaptive phenotypic diversity in a common rainforest bird, the little greenbul (Andropadus virens). Previously, this species was shown to exhibit morphological and song divergence along this gradient in Central Africa. Using satellite-based estimates of forest cover, recent morphological data, and historical data from museum specimens collected prior to widespread deforestation, we show that the gradient has become shallower in West Africa and that A. virens populations there have lost morphological variation in traits important to fitness. In contrast, we find no loss of morphological variation in Central Africa where there has been less deforestation and gradients have remained more intact. While rainforest deforestation is a leading cause of species extinction, the potential of deforestation to flatten gradients and inhibit rainforest diversification has not been previously recognized. More deforestation will likely lead to further flattening of the gradient and loss of diversity, and may limit the ability of species to persist under future environmental conditions.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberE13088
Pages (from-to)1-9
Number of pages9
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 30 Sep 2010


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