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Sky islands: metaphor or misnomer?
Date:8/13/2008

The term "sky islands" sounds intriguing, but it may be more lyrical than useful when discussing mammal distributions, according to new research from Eric Waltari of the Sackler Institute of Comparative Genomics at the American Museum of Natural History and Robert Guralnick from the University of Colorado at Boulder. The team used an emerging technique, ecological niche modeling, to show that the populations of small mammals living on mountaintops in the Great Basinon islands in the skyare not as isolated as previously thought.

"Niche modeling is a quick and straightforward approach to addressing problems that molecular data will eventually solve," says Waltari. "Are the animals on 'sky islands' isolated?"

The answer is no. "Sky islands" is a biogeographical term that was coined to describe the habitats of species living high on mountaintops, habitats thought to be solidly isolated. In the new paper published in the early online version of the , Waltari and Guralnick test the concept of geographic isolation on thirteen species of jackrabbits, shrews, ground squirrels, and other small mammals. The species chosen have detailed location records that were mapped with current and past climate data, such as temperature and rainfall, to "backcast" the distribution of each species at the height of the last ice age 21,000 years ago. The predictions of the model are calibrated with known fossil records. Backcasting allows researchers to test whether species had wider ranges or different distributions in the past; the current study, for example, found that most of the species (12 of 13) lived at lower elevations 21,000 years ago and that the average distribution of each species was larger than it is now.

Determining the area that species inhabited in the past helps researchers understand current population distribution within the western U.S.'s Great Basin and potential linkages between "sky islands," links that ca
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Contact: Kristin Phillips
kphillips@amnh.org
212-496-3419
American Museum of Natural History
Source:Eurekalert

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