Climate has been inherently linked to global diversity patterns, and yet no empirical data are available to put modern climate change into a millennial-scale context. High tropical species diversity has been linked to slow rates of climate change during the Quaternary, an assumption that lacks an empirical foundation. Thus, there is the need for quantifying the velocity at which the bioclimatic space changed during the Quaternary in the tropics. Here we present rates of climate change for the late Pleistocene and Holocene from Mexico and Guatemala. An extensive modern pollen survey and fossil pollen data from two long sedimentary records (30,000 and 86,000 years for highlands and lowlands, respectively) were used to estimate past temperatures. Derived temperature profiles show a parallel long-term trend and a similar cooling during the Last Glacial Maximum in the Guatemalan lowlands and the Mexican highlands. Temperature estimates and digital elevation models were used to calculate the velocity of isotherm displacement (temperature change velocity) for the time period contained in each record. Our analyses showed that temperature change velocities in Mesoamerica during the late Quaternary were at least four times slower than values reported for the last 50 years, but also at least twice as fast as those obtained from recent models. Our data demonstrate that, given extremely high temperature change velocities, species survival must have relied on either microrefugial populations or persistence of suppressed individuals. Contrary to the usual expectation of stable climates being associated with high diversity, our results suggest that Quaternary tropical diversity was probably maintained by centennial-scale oscillatory climatic variability that forestalled competitive exclusion. As humans have simplified modern landscapes, thereby removing potential microrefugia, and climate change is occurring monotonically at a very high velocity, extinction risk for tropical species is higher than at any time in the last 86,000 years.
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