Genetic and plastic responses of a northern mammal to climate change

Denis Réale, Andrew G. McAdam, Stan Boutin, Dominique Berteaux

Abstract

Climate change is predicted to be most severe in northern regions and there has been much interest in to what extent organisms can cope with these changes through phenotypic plasticity or microevolutionary processes. A red squirrel population in the southwest Yukon, Canada, faced with increasing spring temperatures and food supply has advanced the timing of breeding by 18 days over the last 10 years (6 days per generation). Longitudinal analysis of females breeding in multiple years suggests that much of this change in parturition date can be explained by a plastic response to increased food abundance (3.7 days per generation). Significant changes in breeding values (0.8 days per generation), were in concordance with predictions from the breeder' equation (0.6 days per generation), and indicated that an evolutionary response to strong selection favouring earlier breeders also contributed to the observed advancement of this heritable trait. The timing of breeding in this population of squirrels, therefore, has advanced as a result of both phenotypic changes within generations, and genetic changes among generations in response to a rapidly changing environment.