Advancing breeding phenology in response to environmental change in a wild red deer population


Daniel H Nussey, e mail:


Most evidence for advances in phenology of in response to recent climate warming in wild vertebrate populations has come from long-term studies of birds. Few studies have either documented phenological advances or tested their climatic causes and demographic consequences in wild mammal systems. Using a long-term study of red deer on the Isle of Rum, Scotland, we present evidence of significant temporal trends in six phenological traits: oestrus date and parturition date in females, and antler cast date, antler clean date, rut start date and rut end date in males. These traits advanced by between 5 and 12 days across a 28-year study period. Local climate measures associated with plant growth in spring and summer (growing degree days) increased significantly over time and explained a significant amount of variation in all six phenological traits, largely accounting for temporal advances observed in some of the traits. However, there was no evidence for temporal changes in key female reproductive performance traits (offspring birth weight and offspring survival) in this population, despite significant relationships between these traits and female phenology. In males, average antler weights increased over time presumably as a result of improved resource availability and physiological condition through spring and summer. There was no evidence for any temporal change in average male annual breeding success, as might be expected if the timing of male rutting behaviour was failing to track advances in the timing of oestrus in females. Our results provide rare evidence linking phenological advances to climate warming in a wild mammal and highlight the potential complexity of relationships between climate warming, phenology and demography in wild vertebrates.