Differential plasticity of size and mass to environmental change in a hibernating mammal

Glob Chang Biol. 2016 Oct;22(10):3286-303. doi: 10.1111/gcb.13286. Epub 2016 May 9.


Morphological changes following changes in species' distribution and phenology have been suggested to be the third universal response to global environmental change. Although structural size and body mass result from different genetic, physiological, and ecological mechanisms, they are used interchangeably in studies evaluating population responses to environmental change. Using a 22-year (1991-2013) dataset including 1768 individuals, we investigated the coupled dynamics of size and mass in a hibernating mammal, the Alpine marmot (Marmota marmota), in response to local environmental conditions. We (i) quantified temporal trends in both traits, (ii) determined the environmental drivers of trait dynamics, and (iii) identified the life-history processes underlying the observed changes. Both phenotypic traits were followed through life: we focused on the initial trait value (juvenile size and mass) and later-life development (annual change in size [Δsize] and mass [Δmass]). First, we demonstrated contrasting dynamics between size and mass over the study period. Juvenile size and subsequent Δsize showed significant declines, whereas juvenile mass and subsequent Δmass remained constant. As a consequence of smaller size associated with a similar mass, individuals were in better condition in recent years. Second, size and mass showed different sensitivities to environmental variables. Both traits benefited from early access to resources in spring, whereas Δmass, particularly in early life, also responded to summer and winter conditions. Third, the interannual variation in both traits was caused by changes in early life development. Our study supports the importance of considering the differences between size and mass responses to the environment when evaluating the mechanisms underlying population dynamics. The current practice of focusing on only one trait in population modeling can lead to misleading conclusions when evaluating species' resilience to contemporary climate change.

Keywords: Alpine marmot; French Alps; body size; climate change; food availability; normalized difference vegetation index; phenotypic plasticity; reaction norm.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Climate Change*
  • Environment
  • Hibernation*
  • Marmota*
  • Population Dynamics
  • Seasons