Mandt’s Black Guillemont (Image Credit: Óskar Elías Sigurðsson, CC-BY 2.0, Image Cropped)
Phenotypic plasticity or evolutionary change? An examination of the phenological response of an arctic seabird to climate change (2019) Sauve et al., Functional Ecology, https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2435.13406
If you’re here on Ecology for the Masses, then you know that climate change is not only real but is causing all kinds of problems for organisms the world over. One of the things that climate change is doing is altering seasonality, the time of year in which a given season will take place. For example, where I live in the US, it is normally cold at this time of year, but as I write this it is 60F/16C, much warmer than it should be despite it almost being winter. These changes can affect when organisms start their seasonal breeding, but how these breeding events change is not always the same.
Some changes are due to evolution, or the change in a population’s gene frequencies over time. As mutations and selection take place, a given population may have some traits or behaviors selected for over others. Another way that these changes can happen is via plasticity, which is a change induced by the environment, but without changing the gene frequencies (See Did You Know? for more information). The authors of today’s paper wanted to know if the change in breeding dates of a colony of seabirds (Mandt’s black guillemont, Cepphus grylle mandtii) was due to evolution or plasticity.
This fox has tracked down his next meal by listening for sounds in the subnivium. Image Credit: Yellowstone National Park, Public Domain Mark 1.0, Image Cropped.
Sometimes the hardest places to access are the most interesting places to study. Take the subnivium, a temporary ecosystem that forms each winter in the small space between the snowpack and the ground.
Extreme warming events may sound like bad news to reindeer, but they could help increase population stability (Image Credit: Christopher Michel, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped)
More frequent extreme climate events stabilize reindeer population dynamics (2019) Hansen et al., Nature Communications, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-09332-5
Whilst climate change has been causing (and will cause) a myriad of environmental problems, it’s important to remember that not all species will be negatively affected by more extreme weather events. One example is reindeer on the Arctic island of Svalbard, according to this week’s paper.
Taken at face value, an increased frequency of extreme warming events may not sound like a good idea for a cold-adapted species. But despite the fact that it can lead to rain falling and freezing over snow, rendering massive patches of food inaccessible, the authors show that this can actually lead to increased population stability.