Sex-specific responses to climate change in plants alter population sex ratio and performance

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Science  01 Jul 2016:
Vol. 353, Issue 6294, pp. 69-71
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf2588

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Changing sex ratios

Climate-warming temperatures might be expected to affect the sex ratio of species if sex determination is temperature-dependent. Petry et al. show that indirect climate effects could also alter sex ratios in species in which sex is genetically determined and damage reproductive fitness (see the Perspective by Etterson and Mazer). Over four decades, sex ratios in populations of a dioecious alpine plant have shifted toward females as a result of the different water needs of the male and female plants. The lack of males has reduced the reproductive success and fitness of the females. Similar subtle differences between sexes in environmental sensitivities could eventually lead to population declines.

Science, this issue p. 69; see also p. 32


Males and females are ecologically distinct in many species, but whether responses to climate change are sex-specific is unknown. We document sex-specific responses to climate change in the plant Valeriana edulis (valerian) over four decades and across its 1800-meter elevation range. Increased elevation was associated with increased water availability and female frequency, likely owing to sex-specific water use efficiency and survival. Recent aridification caused male frequency to move upslope at 175 meters per decade, a rate of trait shift outpacing reported species’ range shifts by an order of magnitude. This increase in male frequency reduced pollen limitation and increased seedset. Coupled with previous studies reporting sex-specific arthropod communities, these results underscore the importance of ecological differences between the sexes in mediating biological responses to climate change.

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