Finally, a metric of phylogenetic beta-diversity showed that bacterial lineages were not randomly distributed, but rather exhibited significant spatial structure across the gradient, whereas plant lineages did not exhibit a significant phylogenetic signal. Quantifying the influence of sample scale in intertaxonomic comparisons remains a challenge. Nevertheless, our findings suggest that the forces structuring microorganism and macroorganism communities along elevational gradients differ.
Roughly 250 years ago, Carolus Linnaeus (1781) documented how distinct plant and animal communities characterized the succession of climatic zones along the slopes of mountains. Such elevational gradients are characterized by dramatic changes in climate and biotic turnover over short geographic distances. The patterns observed by Linnaeus and his contemporaries played a foundational role in the development of ecology and biogeography (Briggs and Humphries, 2004). Studies of how individual taxa and community composition respond to elevational gradients have led to a search for generalized elevational patterns of biodiversity (Brown, 2001; Lomolino, 2001; McCain, 2005). These studies have documented elevational patterns of diversity across a wide variety of taxonomic groups, including trees, mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, and amphibians. In sum, this work has shown that taxa generally exhibit either monotonically decreasing or hump-shaped richness patterns with elevation (Stevens, 1992; Rahbek, 2005). However, despite a large number of proposed hypotheses to explain elevation patterns of diversity, their causes remain poorly understood. Improved knowledge of elevation gradients is fundamental to advancing basic ecology and predicting the potential consequences of climate change. Species in montane regions are often cited as being very sensitive to the impacts of warming (McDonald and Brown, 1992; Parmesan, 2006; Thuiller, 2007).
Although elevational patterns of diversity for plants and animals are well established, we know very little about how microbial diversity varies across elevational gradients. This is a serious gap in our general understanding of biodiversity, given that microbes are abundant and diverse, play a central role in ecosystem functioning, and will likely be an important component of ecosystem response to global warming (Rillig et al., 2002; Monson et al., 2006; Carney et al., 2007). Elevational diversity studies that consider empirical patterns of macroorganisms and microorganisms in parallel are needed to provide a more unified framework for understanding diversity patterns in Earth’s major environmental gradients and predicting systemwide ecological responses to climatic change.
Traditional elevational diversity studies have focused on how patterns of species richness, abundance, and range size change with altitude. These