Warming temperatures drive at least half of the magnitude of long-term trait changes in European birds

Meadow Pipit nest, Hugh Insley

Author(s): McLean, N., Kruuk, L.E.B., van der Jeugd, H.P., Leech, D., van Turnhout, C.A.M. & van de Pol, M.

Published: March 2022  

Journal: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA Volume: 119

Article No.: e2105416119

Digital Identifier No. (DOI): 10.1073/pnas.2105416119

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Climate change is impacting wild populations, but its relative importance compared to other causes of change is still unclear. Many studies assume that changes in traits primarily reflect effects of climate change, but this assumption is rarely tested. This paper uses datasets from across Europe, including the BTO's Nest Record Scheme, to show that in European birds global warming was likely the single most important contributor to temporal trends in laying date, body condition, and offspring number. However, non-temperature factors were also important and acted in the same direction, implying that attributing temporal trends solely to rising temperatures overestimates the impact of climate warming. Differences among species in the amount of trait change were predominantly determined by these nontemperature effects, suggesting that species differences are not due to variation in sensitivity to temperature.


Many wild populations are experiencing temporal changes in life-history and other phenotypic traits, and these changes are frequently assumed to be driven by climate change rather than nonclimatic drivers. However, this assumption relies on three conditions: that local climate is changing, traits are sensitive to climate variability, and other drivers are not also changing over time. Although many studies acknowledge one or more of these conditions, all three are rarely checked simultaneously. Consequently, the relative contribution of climate change to trait change, and the variation in this contribution across traits and species, remain unclear. We used long-term datasets on 60 bird species in Europe to test the three conditions in laying date, offspring number, and body condition and used a method that quantifies the contribution of warming temperatures to changes in traits relative to other effects. Across species, approximately half of the magnitude of changes in traits could be attributed to rising mean temperature, suggesting that increasing temperatures are likely the single most important contributor to temporal trends and emphasizes the impact that global warming is having on natural populations. There were also substantial nontemperature-related temporal trends (presumably due to other changes such as urbanization), which generally caused trait change in the same direction as warming. Attributing temporal trends solely to warming thus overestimates the impact of warming. Furthermore, contributions from nontemperature drivers explained most of the interspecific variation in trait changes, raising concerns about comparative studies that attribute differences in temporal trends to species differences in climate-change sensitivity.
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