In wildlife ecology we do a lot of work correlating species occurrence with different habitat characteristics: slope, aspect, elevation, vegetation type, basal area, substrate ect. ect. ad nauseam. You can build models and rank them to find what characteristic best predicts the current distribution and success of a population. It’s all well and good to know that right now Mexican spotted owls can be found in steep Redwall limestone side canyons within Grand Canyon. I can use that information and target my inventory surveys to find more spotted owls in the remote reaches of the canyon – which is huge, and helpful, and important. But what about 50 years from now? How helpful will it be to know that my owls like the Redwall? I highly doubt dispersing individuals fly up to each rock layer and peck at it to make sure they are selecting for Redwall, because their owl friends will make fun of them for settling in the wrong rock layer (is the Coconino Sandstone the owl equivalent of trucker hats?). If we want to predict how species will respond to climate change, and other emerging threats we really need to get down to WHY. Researchers (link) assume that owls are selecting the Redwall because it provides microhabitats that buffer them from the extreme heat in the canyon, allowing them to thermoregulate effectively around 27C and carry out their lives when ambient temperatures outside of the microhabitat can exceed 40C. Will that be the case in 50 years? 100 years?
Around there world there is a coherent pattern of species shifting their distributions towards the poles and upwards in elevation in response to warming climate. Will climate change push the owls out of the Redwall? Will the next band – the Supai, Coconino, or Kaibab provide the structure needed to create these microhabitats? This is more than just about owls finding new homes, these microhabitats are critical for many species – especially desert adapted species – what will happen to them, to how communities function and interact. Big questions – but I have a big canyon to play in to answer them.