Multiple pathways mediate the effects of climate change on maternal reproductive traits in a red deer population


  • Corresponding Editor: M. K. Oli.


Temporal changes in phenological traits arising as a consequence of recent rapid environmental change have been widely demonstrated in animal populations. Increasingly, studies are seeking to understand the impact of changes in such traits on individual fitness and population dynamics, with the ultimate aim of predicting population persistence or extinction under different climate scenarios. Here, we examined the effects of environmental change on maternal reproductive traits in a wild population of red deer (Cervus elaphus) and sought to explain why, despite a rapid advance in offspring birth dates, we observed no apparent consequences for offspring fitness. By using path analysis, we identified both direct and indirect paths along which changes in environmental conditions affected birth date, birth mass, juvenile survival, and female fecundity. In general, warmer temperatures were associated with earlier birth dates and greater birth mass, and higher rainfall was associated with reduced juvenile survival and reduced female fecundity. We also examined concurrent effects of population density, maternal age, and reproductive history, and found that temporal stasis in average trait values, at least in part, could be explained by antagonistic roles of direct and indirect effects of changing climate and increasing population density. Identification of the many mechanisms that contribute to the dynamics of phenotypic traits is challenging; this study demonstrates the need to consider both climatic and demographic variation in order to understand the fitness consequences of changes in phenological traits.