Warmer springs lead to mistimed reproduction in great tits (Parus major)

M. E. Visser, A. J. van Noordwijk, J. M. Tinbergen, C. M. Lessells

Abstract

In seasonal environments, the main selection pressure on the timing of reproduction (the ultimate factor) is synchrony between offspring requirements and food availability. However, reproduction is initiated much earlier than the time of maximum food requirement of the offspring. Individuals should therefore start reproduction in response to cues (the proximate factors), available in the environment of reproductive decision making, which predict the later environment of selection. With increasing spring temperatures over the past decades, vegetation phenology has advanced, with a concomitant advancement in the reproduction of some species at higher trophic levels. However, a mismatch between food abundance and offspring needs may occur if changes in the environment of decision making do not match those in the environment of selection. Date of egg laying in a great tit (Parus major) population has not advanced over a 23–year period, but selection for early laying has intensified. We believe that this is the first documented case of an adaptive response being hampered because a changing abiotic factor affects the environment in which a reproductive decision is made differently from the environment in which selection occurs.