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Response of barren-ground caribou to advancing spring phenology

  • Global change ecology – original research
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Phenological shifts are occurring in many ecosystems around the world. The capacity of species to adapt to changing phenology will be critical to their success under climate change scenarios. Failure to adjust migratory and reproductive timing to keep pace with the earlier onset of spring has led to negative demographic effects for populations of species across a variety of taxa. For caribou, there have been concerns that earlier spring green-up on calving areas might not be matched by earlier migration and parturition, potentially leading to a trophic mismatch with nutritional consequences for parturient and lactating caribou cows. However, there is limited evidence supporting these concerns. Here, we investigate the response of barren-ground caribou to changing spring phenology using data from telemetry and satellite imagery. From 2004 to 2016, we found that the average start of green-up on the calving area advanced by 7.25 days, while the start of migration advanced by 13.64 days, the end of migration advanced by 6.02 days, and the date of peak calving advanced by 9.42 days. Despite the advancing onset of green-up, we found no evidence for the development of a trophic mismatch because the advancing green-up coincided with earlier migration and calving by caribou. Changing snow cover on the late winter and migratory ranges was the most supported driver of advancing migratory behavior. The ability of caribou to adjust the timing of migratory and reproductive behavior in response to changing environmental conditions demonstrates the potential resilience of the species to some aspects of climate change.

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Funding for this study was provided by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the World Wildlife Fund Canada Arctic Species Conservation Fund, and the W. Garfield Weston Foundation. The Government of Nunavut provided caribou telemetry data. We thank CL Mallory and the anonymous reviewers for comments that improved the manuscript.

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All authors contributed to the design of this study. CDM and SNW analyzed the data and wrote the manuscript. MWC and MSB provided editorial advice.

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Correspondence to Conor D. Mallory.

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Communicated by Ilpo Kojola.

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Mallory, C.D., Williamson, S.N., Campbell, M.W. et al. Response of barren-ground caribou to advancing spring phenology. Oecologia 192, 837–852 (2020).

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