A test of the mismatch hypothesis: How is timing of reproduction related to food abundance in an aerial insectivore?



In seasonal environments, vertebrates are generally thought to time their reproduction so offspring are raised during the peak of food abundance. The mismatch hypothesis predicts that reproductive success is maximized when animals synchronize their reproduction with the food supply. Understanding the mechanisms influencing the timing of reproduction has taken on new urgency as climate change is altering environmental conditions during reproduction, and there is concern that species will not be able to synchronize their reproduction with changing food supplies. Using data from five sites over 24 years (37 site–years), we tested the assumptions of the mismatch hypothesis in the Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor), a widespread aerial insectivore, whose timing of egg-laying has shifted earlier by nine days since the 1950s. Contrary to the mismatch hypothesis, the start of egg-laying was strongly related to food abundance (flying insect biomass) during the laying period and not to timing of the seasonal peak in food supply. In fact, food abundance generally continued to increase throughout the breeding season, and there was no evidence of selection based on the mistiming of laying with the seasonal peak of food abundance. In contrast, there was selection for laying earlier, because birds that lay earlier generally have larger clutches and fledge more young. Overall, initial reproductive decisions in this insectivore appear to be based on the food supply during egg formation and not the nestling period. Thus, the mismatch hypothesis may not apply in environments with relatively constant or abundant food throughout the breeding season. Although climate change is often associated with earlier reproduction, our results caution that it is not necessarily driven by selection for synchronized reproduction.