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Body shrinkage due to Arctic warming reduces red knot fitness in tropical wintering range

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Science  13 May 2016:
Vol. 352, Issue 6287, pp. 819-821
DOI: 10.1126/science.aad6351

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Consequences conferred at a distance

Migratory animals have adapted to life in multiple, sometimes very different environments. Thus, they may show particularly complex responses as climates rapidly change. Van Gils et al. show that body size in red knot birds has been decreasing as their Arctic breeding ground warms (see the Perspective by Wikelski and Tertitski). However, the real toll of this change appears not in the rapidly changing northern part of their range but in the apparently more stable tropical wintering range. The resulting smaller, short-billed birds have difficulty reaching their major food source, deeply buried mollusks, which decreases the survival of birds born during particularly warm years.

Science, this issue p. 819; see also p. 775

Abstract

Reductions in body size are increasingly being identified as a response to climate warming. Here we present evidence for a case of such body shrinkage, potentially due to malnutrition in early life. We show that an avian long-distance migrant (red knot, Calidris canutus canutus), which is experiencing globally unrivaled warming rates at its high-Arctic breeding grounds, produces smaller offspring with shorter bills during summers with early snowmelt. This has consequences half a world away at their tropical wintering grounds, where shorter-billed individuals have reduced survival rates. This is associated with these molluscivores eating fewer deeply buried bivalve prey and more shallowly buried seagrass rhizomes. We suggest that seasonal migrants can experience reduced fitness at one end of their range as a result of a changing climate at the other end.

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