Can animal habitat use patterns influence their vulnerability to extreme climate events? An estuarine sportfish case study

Glob Chang Biol. 2017 Oct;23(10):4045-4057. doi: 10.1111/gcb.13761. Epub 2017 Jun 8.


Global climate forecasts predict changes in the frequency and intensity of extreme climate events (ECEs). The capacity for specific habitat patches within a landscape to modulate stressors from extreme climate events, and animal distribution throughout habitat matrices during events, could influence the degree of population level effects following the passage of ECEs. Here, we ask (i) does the intensity of stressors of an ECE vary across a landscape? And (ii) Do habitat use patterns of a mobile species influence their vulnerability to ECEs? Specifically, we measured how extreme cold spells might interact with temporal variability in habitat use to affect populations of a tropical, estuarine-dependent large-bodied fish Common Snook, within Everglades National Park estuaries (FL US). We examined temperature variation across the estuary during cold disturbances with different degrees of severity, including an extreme cold spell. Second, we quantified Snook distribution patterns when the passage of ECEs is most likely to occur from 2012 to 2016 using passive acoustic tracking. Our results revealed spatial heterogeneity in the intensity of temperature declines during cold disturbances, with some habitats being consistently 3-5°C colder than others. Surprisingly, Snook distributions during periods of greatest risk to experience an extreme cold event varied among years. During the winters of 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 a greater proportion of Snook occurred in the colder habitats, while the winters of 2012-2013 and 2015-2016 featured more Snook observed in the warmest habitats. This study shows that Snook habitat use patterns could influence vulnerability to extreme cold events, however, whether Snook habitat use increases or decreases their vulnerability to disturbance depends on the year, creating temporally dynamic vulnerability. Faunal global change research should address the spatially explicit nature of extreme climate events and animal habitat use patterns to identify potential mechanisms that may influence population effects following these disturbances.

Keywords: Common Snook; acoustic telemetry; animal movement; extreme climate events; extreme cold spells; spatial heterogeneity.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Climate Change
  • Climate*
  • Ecosystem*
  • Estuaries
  • Fisheries
  • Fishes
  • Population Dynamics
  • Seasons