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Physiol Biochem Zool. 2008 Nov-Dec;81(6):826-34. doi: 10.1086/590220.

Climate change and temperature-dependent sex determination: can individual plasticity in nesting phenology prevent extreme sex ratios?

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  • 1Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa 50011, USA.


Under temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD), temperatures experienced by embryos during development determine the sex of the offspring. Consequently, populations of organisms with TSD have the potential to be strongly impacted by climatic warming that could bias offspring sex ratio, a fundamental demographic parameter involved in population dynamics. Moreover, many taxa with TSD are imperiled, so research on this phenomenon, particularly long-term field study, has assumed great urgency. Recently, turtles with TSD have joined the diverse list of taxa that have demonstrated population-level changes in breeding phenology in response to recent climate change. This raises the possibility that any adverse impacts of climate change on populations may be alleviated by individual plasticity in nesting phenology. Here, we examine data from a long-term study on a population of painted turtles (Chrysemys picta) to determine whether changes in phenology are due to individual plasticity and whether individual plasticity in the timing of nesting has the capacity to offset the sex ratio effects of a rise in climatic temperature. We find that individual females show plasticity in the date of first nesting each year, and that this plasticity depends on the climate from the previous winter. First nesting date is not repeatable within individuals, suggesting that it would not respond to selection. Sex ratios of hatchlings within a nest declined nonsignificantly over the nesting season. However, small increases in summer temperature had a much stronger effect on nest sex ratios than did laying nests earlier in the season. For this and other reasons, it seems unlikely that individual plasticity in the timing of nesting will offset the effects of climate change on sex ratios in this population, and we hypothesize that this conclusion applies to other populations with TSD.

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