Phenological asynchrony between herbivorous insects and their hosts: signal of climate change or pre-existing adaptive strategy?

Michael C. Singer, Camille Parmesan

Abstract

Climate change alters phenological relations between interacting species. We might expect the historical baseline, or starting-point, for such effects to be precise synchrony between the season at which a consumer most requires food and the time when its resources are most available. We synthesize evidence that synchrony was not the historical condition in two insect–plant interactions involving Edith's checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas editha), the winter moth (Operophtera brumata) and their host plants. Initial observations of phenological mismatch in both systems were made prior to the onset of anthropogenically driven climate change. Neither species can detect the phenology of its host plants with precision. In both species, evolution of life history has involved compromise between maximizing fecundity and minimizing mortality, with the outcome being superficially maladaptive strategies in which many, or even most, individuals die of starvation through poor synchrony with their host plants. Where phenological asynchrony or mismatch with resources forms the starting point for effects of anthropogenic global warming, consumers are particularly vulnerable to impacts that exacerbate the mismatch. This vulnerability likely contributed to extinction of a well-studied metapopulation of Edith's checkerspot, and to the skewed geographical pattern of population extinctions underlying a northward and upward range shift in this species.

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