Climate warming is associated with smaller body size and shorter lifespans in moose near their southern range limit

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College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science


Despite the importance of body size for individual fitness, population dynamics and community dynamics, the influence of climate change on growth and body size is inadequately understood, particularly for long‐lived vertebrates. Although temporal trends in body size have been documented, it remains unclear whether these changes represent the adverse impact of climate change (environmental stress constraining phenotypes) or its mitigation (via phenotypic plasticity or evolution). Concerns have also been raised about whether climate change is indeed the causal agent of these phenotypic shifts, given the length of time‐series analysed and that studies often do not evaluate – and thereby sufficiently rule out – other potential causes. Here, we evaluate evidence for climate‐related changes in adult body size (indexed by skull size) over a 4–decade period for a population of moose (Alces alces) near the southern limit of their range whilst also considering changes in density, predation, and human activities. In particular, we document: (i) a trend of increasing winter temperatures and concurrent decline in skull size (decline of 19% for males and 13% for females) and (ii) evidence of a negative relationship between skull size and winter temperatures during the first year of life. These patterns could be plausibly interpreted as an adaptive phenotypic response to climate warming given that latitudinal/temperature clines are often accepted as evidence of adaptation to local climate. However, we also observed: (iii) that moose with smaller skulls had shorter lifespans, (iv) a reduction in lifespan over the 4‐decade study period, and (v) a negative relationship between lifespan and winter temperatures during the first year of life. Those observations indicate that this phenotypic change is not an adaptive response to climate change. However, this decline in lifespan was not accompanied by an obvious change in population dynamics, suggesting that climate change may affect population dynamics and life‐histories differently.

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© 2017 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Publisher’s version of record: https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.14015

Publication Title

Global Change Biology