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Nature. 2012 Sep 27;489(7417):554-7. doi: 10.1038/nature11335. Epub 2012 Aug 8.

Delayed phenology and reduced fitness associated with climate change in a wild hibernator.

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Institute of Evolutionary Biology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh EH9 3JT, UK.


The most commonly reported ecological effects of climate change are shifts in phenologies, in particular of warmer spring temperatures leading to earlier timing of key events. Among animals, however, these reports have been heavily biased towards avian phenologies, whereas we still know comparatively little about other seasonal adaptations, such as mammalian hibernation. Here we show a significant delay (0.47 days per year, over a 20-year period) in the hibernation emergence date of adult females in a wild population of Columbian ground squirrels in Alberta, Canada. This finding was related to the climatic conditions at our study location: owing to within-individual phenotypic plasticity, females emerged later during years of lower spring temperature and delayed snowmelt. Although there has not been a significant annual trend in spring temperature, the date of snowmelt has become progressively later owing to an increasing prevalence of late-season snowstorms. Importantly, years of later emergence were also associated with decreased individual fitness. There has consequently been a decline in mean fitness (that is, population growth rate) across the past two decades. Our results show that plastic responses to climate change may be driven by climatic trends other than increasing temperature, and may be associated with declines in individual fitness and, hence, population viability.

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