Skip to main content Accessibility help

The roles of history and habitat area in the distribution and composition of avian species assemblages in the highlands of Costa Rica

  • Gilbert Barrantes (a1), Mariel Yglesias (a2) and Eric J. Fuchs (a1)


Bird species assemblages in isolated Neotropical highland mountains have been moulded by the drastic climatic changes that occurred in late Pleistocene. Palynological evidence indicates that after the Pleistocene the highlands of Costa Rica and western Panama became isolated as climate turned gradually more tropical and highland vegetation retreated to the upper elevations of high mountains, forming highland islands. We surveyed birds at 10 representative sites throughout the Costa Rican highlands in order to determine the species composition of highland endemic assemblages. The area of available highland habitat explains 77% of the variance in species richness of the 36 highland endemics across highland islands, and the composition of these species assemblages have a nested distribution, rather than being independent sets of species on each island. The observed nested pattern is more consistent with a differential extinction model of species assemblages, and less likely to be explained by differential migration. We conclude that the reduction of highland vegetation and the avifauna associated with it, and its subsequent confinement to the summit of high mountains, is a possible explanation for the current distribution of highland endemic species in Costa Rican highland islands.


Corresponding author

1Corresponding author. Email:


Hide All
ALMEIDA-NETO, M., GUIMARÃES, P., GUIMARÃES, P. R., LOYOLA, R. D. & ULRICH, W. 2008. A consistent metric for nestedness analysis in ecological systems: reconciling concept and measurement. Oikos 117:12271239.
AMERICAN ORNITHOLOGISTS’ UNION. 1998. Check-list of North American birds, 7th edition and its supplements. American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington. 829 pp.
ATMAR, W. & PATTERSON, B. D. 1993. The measure of order and disorder in the distribution of species in fragmented habitat. Oecologia 96:373382.
BARRANTES, G. 2005. Aves de los páramos de Costa Rica. Pp. 521532 in Kappelle, M. & Horn, S. P. (eds.). Páramos de Costa Rica. Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad, Heredia, Costa Rica.
BARRANTES, G. 2009. The role of historical and local factors in determining species composition of the highland avifauna of Costa Rica and western Panamá. Revista de Biología Tropical 57 (Suppl. 1):333349.
BARRANTES, G. & LOISELLE, B. 2002. Reproduction, habitat use, and natural history of the Black-and-Yellow Silky-Fly Catcher (Phainoptila melanoxantha), an endemic bird of the Western Panamá–Costa Rica Highlands. Ornitologia Neotropical 15;121136.
BARRANTES, G. & SÁNCHEZ, J. 2000. A new subspecies of Black and Yellow Silky Flycatcher, Phainoptila melanoxantha (Bombycillidae, Aves), from Costa Rica. Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club 120;4046.
BROWN, J. H. 1971. Mammals on mountaintops: non-equilibrium insular biogeography. American Naturalist 105:467478.
CHAVARRÍA-PIZARRO, T., GUTIÉRREZ-ESPELETA, G., FUCHS, E. J. & BARRANTES, G. 2010. Genetic and morphological variation of the sooty-capped bush tanager (Chlorospingus pileatus), a highland endemic species from Costa Rica and western Panama. Wilson Journal of Ornithology 122:279287.
CUTLER, A. 1991. Nested faunas and extinction in fragmented habitats. Conservation Biology 5:496504.
FJELDSÅ, J. 1992. Biogeography of the birds of the Polylepis woodlands of the Andes. Pp. 3144 in Balslev, H. & Luteyn, J. L. (eds.). Paramo: an Andean ecosystem under human influence. Academic Press, London.
FJELDSÅ, J. & KRABBE, N. 1990. Birds of the high Andes. Zoological Museum of Copenhagen and Apollo Books, Svendborg. 876 pp.
GÓMEZ, L. D. 1986. Vegetación de Costa Rica. Apuntes para una biogeografía costarricense. Universidad Estatal a Distancia, San José. 327 pp.
HACKETT, S. J. 1995. Molecular systematics and zoogeography of flowerpiercers in the Diglossa baritula complex. Auk 112:156170.
HAFFER, J. 1974. Avian speciation in tropical South America. Nuttall Ornithological Club 14:1390.
HOOGHIEMSTRA, H., CLEEF, A. M., NOLDUS, G. & KAPPELLE, M. 1992. Upper Quaternary vegetation dynamics and palaeoclimatology of the La Chonta bog area (Cordillera de Talamanca, Costa Rica). Journal of Quaternary Science 7:205225.
ISLEBE, G. A., HOOGHIEMSTRA, H. & VAN DER BORG, K. 1995. A cooling event during the younger Dryas Chron in Costa Rica. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 117:7380.
ISLEBE, G. A., HOOGHIEMSTRA, H. & VAN VEER, R. T. 1996. Holocene vegetation and water level history in two bogs of the Cordillera de Talamanca, Costa Rica. Vegetatio 124:155171.
LOMOLINO, M. V. 1996. Investigating causality of nestedness of insular communities: selective immigrations or extinctions? Journal of Biogeography 23:699703.
LOWELL, T. V., HEUSSER, C. J., ANDERSEN, B. G., MORENO, P. I., HAUSER, A., SCHLUCHTER, C., MARCHANT, D. R. & DENTON, G. H. 1995. Interhemispheric correlation of late Pleistocene glacial events. Science 269:15411549.
MACARTHUR, R. H. & WILSON, E. O. 1967. The theory of island biogeography. Princeton University Press, Princeton. 203 pp.
MARTÍNEZ-MORALES, M. A. 2005. Nested species assemblages as a tool to detect sensitivity to forest fragmentation: the case of cloud forest birds. Oikos 108:634642.
MAYR, E. & DIAMOND, J. 2001. The birds of the northern Melanesia. Speciation, ecology, and biogeography. Oxford University Press, New York. 492 pp.
NORES, M. 1995. Insular biogeography of birds in mountain tops of north western Argentina. Journal of Biogeography 22:6170.
PATTERSON, B. D. 1990. On the temporal development of nested subset patterns of species composition. Oikos 59:330342.
PATTERSON, B. D. & ATMAR, W. 1986. Nested subsets and the structure of insular mammalian faunas and archipelagos. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 28:6582.
PATTERSON, B. D. & BROWN, J. H. 1991. Regionally nested patterns of species composition in granivorous rodent assemblages. Journal of Biogeography 18;395402.
PÉREZ-EMÁN, J. L. 2005. Molecular phylogenetics and biogeography of the Neotropical redstarts (Myioborus; Aves, Parulinae). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 37:511528.
POUNDS, J. A., FOGDEN, M. P. L. & CAMPBELL, J. H. 1999. Biological response to climate change on a tropical mountain. Nature 398:611615.
PRANCE, G. T. 1982. A review of the phytogeographic evidences for Pleistocene climate changes in the Neotropics. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 69:594624.
PUEBLA-OLIVARES, F., BONACCORSO, E., ESPINOSA DE LOS MONTEROS, A., OMLAND, K. E., LLORENTE-BOUSQUETS, J. E., PETERSON, A. T. & NAVARRO-SIGÜENZA, A. G. 2008. Speciation in the emerald toucanet (Aulacorhynchus prasinus) complex. Auk 125:3950.
RIDGELY, R. S. & GWYNNE, J. A. GWYNNE, J. A. 1989. A guide to the birds of Panama, with Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras. Princeton University Press, Princeton. 412 pp.
ROSENZWEIG, M. L. 1995. Species diversity in space and time. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 436 pp.
SIMBERLOFF, D. & ABELE, L. G. 1982. Refuge design and island biogeographic theory: effects of fragmentation. American Naturalist 120:4150.
SLUD, P. 1964. The birds of Costa Rica. Distribution and ecology. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 128:1430.
SMITH, B. T. & KLICKA, J. 2010. The profound influence of the Late Pliocene Panamanian uplift on the exchange, diversification, and distribution of New World birds. Ecography 33:333342.
STILES, F. G. 1983a. Birds. Introduction. Pp. 502530 in Janzen, D. (ed.). Costa Rican natural history. Chicago University Press, Chicago.
STILES, F. G. 1983b. Systematics of the southern forms of Selasphorus (Trochilidae). Auk 100:311325.
STILES, F. G. 1985. Geographic variation in the Fierythroated Hummingbird, Panterpe insignis. Ornithological Monographs 36:2330.
STILES, F. G. & SKUTCH, A. F. 1989. A guide of the birds of Costa Rica. Cornell University Press, Ithaca. 511 pp.
VUILLEUMIER, F. 1970. Insular biogeography in continental regions. I. The northern Andes of South America. American Naturalist 104:373388.
VUILLEUMIER, F. & SIMBERLOFF, D. 1980. Ecology versus history as determinants of patchy and insular distributions in high Andean birds. Evolutionary Biology 12:235379.
WEIR, J. T. 2006. Divergent timing and patterns of species accumulation in lowland and highland Neotropical birds. Evolution 60:842855.
WHITTAKER, R. J., TRIANTIS, K. A. & LADLE, R. J. 2008. A general dynamic theory of oceanic island biogeography. Journal of Biogeography 35:977994.
WINKER, K. & PRUETT, C. L. 2006. Seasonal migration and morphological convergence in the genus Catharus (Turdidae). Auk 123:10521068.
WOLF, L. L. 1976. Avifauna of the Cerro de la Muerte region Costa Rica. American Museum Novitates 2606:137.
WORTHEN, W. B. 1996. Community composition and nested-subset analyses: basic descriptors for community ecology. Oikos 76:417426.
WRIGHT, D. H., PATTERSON, B. D., MIKKELSON, G. M., CUTLER, A. & ATMAR, W. 1998. A comparative analysis of nested subset patterns of species composition. Oecologia 113:120.



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed