Inferring local processes from macro-scale phenological pattern: a comparison of two methods


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  1. Understanding the processes responsible for macro-scale spatial and temporal phenological patterns is a critical step in developing predictive phenological models. While phenological responses may involve the integration of multiple environmental cues, the spring phenology of many plant and animal species appears to be especially sensitive to temperature.
  2. As a result of the success of citizen science schemes in mobilizing amateur naturalists, for some parts of the world, there now exist extensive data sets of phenological timings, spanning many species, locations and years. In macroecology, two types of models – time windows and growing degree-days – are widely used to predict phenology on the basis of temperature.
  3. Here, we compare the performance of the two methods in predicting spatiotemporal variation in the timing of Quercus robur first leafing. The methods agree on the time at which leafing becomes sensitive to temperature and provide weak support for a delay in initiation of thermal sensitivity with increasing latitude due to a day-length requirement. Both methods explain c. 50% of the variation in first dates and identify plasticity, rather than local adaptation, as the major cause of spatial covariation between temperature and phenology. For a 1°C rise in spring temperatures we predict that a plastic response of first leafing will give rise to an advance of about seven days.
  4. Synthesis: Time-window and growing degree-day methods provide remarkably congruent insights into the processes underpinning geographic variation in Quercus robur first leafing dates. We find that a spatially invariant plastic response to temperature dominates spatiotemporal phenological variation, which means that it may be reasonable to substitute space for time to project how this species will respond to climate change. This study demonstrates the contribution that top-down macroecological approaches can make to our understanding of the processes that give rise to intraspecific phenological variation.