High fitness costs of climate change-induced camouflage mismatch

Ecol Lett. 2016 Mar;19(3):299-307. doi: 10.1111/ele.12568. Epub 2016 Jan 21.


Anthropogenic climate change has created myriad stressors that threaten to cause local extinctions if wild populations fail to adapt to novel conditions. We studied individual and population-level fitness costs of a climate change-induced stressor: camouflage mismatch in seasonally colour molting species confronting decreasing snow cover duration. Based on field measurements of radiocollared snowshoe hares, we found strong selection on coat colour molt phenology, such that animals mismatched with the colour of their background experienced weekly survival decreases up to 7%. In the absence of adaptive response, we show that these mortality costs would result in strong population-level declines by the end of the century. However, natural selection acting on wide individual variation in molt phenology might enable evolutionary adaptation to camouflage mismatch. We conclude that evolutionary rescue will be critical for hares and other colour molting species to keep up with climate change.

Keywords: Camouflage; climate change; evolutionary adaptation; evolutionary rescue; fitness; molt phenology; natural selection; phenological mismatch; snow cover; snowshoe hare.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Climate Change*
  • Food Chain*
  • Hares / physiology*
  • Longevity*
  • Molting
  • Phenotype
  • Population Dynamics
  • Population Growth
  • Seasons
  • Selection, Genetic*
  • Snow