Climate Change Expected To Drive Joshua Trees From 90 Percent Of Its Range Within 60-90 Years

These two USGS photos depict healthy Joshua trees (top) in their northernmost stand in the Inyo Mountains above Eureka Valley, California, and a 2004 photo of a stand of dead Joshua trees near Pierce Ferry, Arizona, where the trees struggled with just 17 percent of the area's normal precipitation and temperatures that were 4 degrees warmer than average.

By the end of the century, possibly sooner, a hotter climate likely will push Joshua trees out of 90 percent of their current range, which includes Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks, according to U.S. Geological Survey researchers.

In coming to their conclusions, the research team headed by USGS ecologist Ken Cole used a mix of climate change models, analyses of climatic tolerances of Joshua trees in their current range, and even fossil records to arrive at its conclusions.

The study concluded that the spindly members of the Yucca family that are equated with the hot, arid Mojave Desert could be restricted to the northernmost portion of their current range as early as the end of this century. Additionally, the ability of Joshua trees to migrate via seed dispersal to more suitable climates might be severely limited, the research noted.

“This is one of the most interesting research projects of my career,” said Mr. Cole, the study’s lead author. “It incorporated not only state-of-the-art climate models and modern ecology, but also documentary information found in fossils that are more than 20,000 years old.”

By using fossil sloth dung found in desert caves and packrat middens — basically, the garbage piles of aptly named packrats — scientists were able to reconstruct how Joshua trees responded to a sudden climate warming around 12,000 years ago that was similar to warming projections for this century. Prior to its extinction around 13,000 years ago, the Shasta ground sloth favored Joshua trees as food, and its fossilized dung contained abundant remains of Joshua trees, including whole seeds and fruits. These fossil deposits, along with fossil leaves collected and stored by packrats, allowed scientists to determine the tree’s formerly broad range before the warming event.

According to a USGS release, the study concluded that the ability of Joshua trees to spread into suitable habitat following the prehistoric warming event around 12,000 years ago was limited by the extinction of large animals that had previously dispersed its seeds over large geographic areas, particularly the Shasta ground sloth.

Today, Joshua tree seeds are dispersed by seed-caching rodents, such as squirrels and packrats, which cannot disperse seeds as far as large mammals, the release pointed out. The limited ability of rodents to disperse Joshua tree seeds in combination with other factors would likely slow migration to only about 6 feet per year, not enough to keep pace with the warming climate, Mr. Cole and his colleagues concluded.

The Joshua tree, a giant North American yucca, occupies desert grasslands and shrublands of the Mojave Desert of California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah. The Joshua tree is known for its distinctive shape and height of up to 50 feet.

The study, Past and ongoing shifts in Joshua tree distribution support future modeled range contraction, appears in a current edition of Ecological Applications.