, Volume 147, Issue 1, pp 164–172 | Cite as

Shifts in caterpillar biomass phenology due to climate change and its impact on the breeding biology of an insectivorous bird

  • Marcel E. VisserEmail author
  • Leonard J. M. Holleman
  • Phillip Gienapp
Global Change Ecology


Timing of reproduction has major fitness consequences, which can only be understood when the phenology of the food for the offspring is quantified. For insectivorous birds, like great tits (Parus major), synchronisation of their offspring needs and abundance of caterpillars is the main selection pressure. We measured caterpillar biomass over a 20-year period and showed that the annual peak date is correlated with temperatures from 8 March to 17 May. Laying dates also correlate with temperatures, but over an earlier period (16 March – 20 April). However, as we would predict from a reliable cue used by birds to time their reproduction, also the food peak correlates with these temperatures. Moreover, the slopes of the phenology of the birds and caterpillar biomass, when regressed against the temperatures in this earlier period, do not differ. The major difference is that due to climate change, the relationship between the timing of the food peak and the temperatures over the 16 March – 20 April period is changing, while this is not so for great tit laying dates. As a consequence, the synchrony between offspring needs and the caterpillar biomass has been disrupted in the recent warm decades. This may have severe consequences as we show that both the number of fledglings as well as their fledging weight is affected by this synchrony. We use the descriptive models for both the caterpillar biomass peak as for the great tit laying dates to predict shifts in caterpillar and bird phenology 2005–2100, using an IPCC climate scenario. The birds will start breeding earlier and this advancement is predicted to be at the same rate as the advancement of the food peak, and hence they will not reduce the amount of the current mistiming of about 10 days.


Climate change  Fitness Great tit Phenology Timing of reproduction 



We thank Jan Visser for maintaining the great tit database, Ruben Smit for the measurements of the trees, Arie van Noordwijk and many students for their help with the branch sampling and Will Cresswell for his comments on the manuscript. We are grateful to the board of the National Park de Hoge Veluwe, to Barones van Boetzelaer van Oosterhout and the State Forestry Service in Vlieland for the permission to work in their woodlands.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Marcel E. Visser
    • 1
    Email author
  • Leonard J. M. Holleman
    • 1
  • Phillip Gienapp
    • 1
  1. 1.Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW)HeterenThe Netherlands

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