Environmental factors are stronger predictors of primate species’ distributions than basic biological traits

Katherine A. Williams, Helen D. Slater, Phillipa Gillingham, Amanda H. Korstjens

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Understanding the neutral, biological, and environmental processes driving species distributions is valuable in informing conservation efforts because it will help us predict how species will respond to changes in environmental conditions. Environmental processes affect species differently according to their biological traits, which determine how they interact with their environment. Therefore, functional, trait-based modeling approaches are considered important for predicting distributions and species responses to change but even for data-rich primate communities our understanding of the relationships between traits and environmental conditions is limited. Here we use a large-scale, high-resolution data set of African diurnal primate distributions, biological traits, and environmental conditions to investigate the role of biological traits and environmental trait filtering in primate distributions. We collected data from published sources for 354 sites and 14 genera with 57 species across sub-Saharan Africa. We then combined a three-table ordination method, RLQ, with the fourth-corner approach to test relationships between environmental variables and biological traits and used a mapping approach to visually assess patterning in primate genus and species’ distributions. We found no significant relationships between any groups of environmental variables and biological traits, despite a clear role of environmental filtering in driving genus and species’ distributions. The most important environmental driver of species distributions was temperature seasonality, followed by rainfall. We conclude that the relative flexibility of many primate genera means that not any one particular set of traits drives their species–environment associations, despite the clear role of such associations in their distribution patterns.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)404-425
Number of pages22
JournalInternational Journal of Primatology
Issue number3
Early online date23 Apr 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2021


  • Africa
  • climate
  • environment trait filtering
  • fourth corner
  • functional diversity
  • primate assemblages
  • RLQ


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