Winter color polymorphisms identify global hot spots for evolutionary rescue from climate change

See allHide authors and affiliations

Science  02 Mar 2018:
Vol. 359, Issue 6379, pp. 1033-1036
DOI: 10.1126/science.aan8097

Changing coats with the season

Many species of mammals and birds molt from summer brown to winter white coats to facilitate camouflage. Mills et al. mapped global patterns of seasonal coat color change across eight species including hares, weasels, and foxes. They found regions where individuals molt to white, brown, and both white and brown winter coats. Greater proportions of the populations molted to white in higher latitudes. Regions where seasonal coat changes are the most variable (molting to both brown and white) may provide resilience against the warming climate.

Science, this issue p. 1033


Maintenance of biodiversity in a rapidly changing climate will depend on the efficacy of evolutionary rescue, whereby population declines due to abrupt environmental change are reversed by shifts in genetically driven adaptive traits. However, a lack of traits known to be under direct selection by anthropogenic climate change has limited the incorporation of evolutionary processes into global conservation efforts. In 21 vertebrate species, some individuals undergo a seasonal color molt from summer brown to winter white as camouflage against snow, whereas other individuals remain brown. Seasonal snow duration is decreasing globally, and fitness is lower for winter white animals on snowless backgrounds. Based on 2713 georeferenced samples of known winter coat color—from eight species across trophic levels—we identify environmentally driven clinal gradients in winter coat color, including polymorphic zones where winter brown and white morphs co-occur. These polymorphic zones, underrepresented by existing global protected area networks, indicate hot spots for evolutionary rescue in a changing climate.

View Full Text

Stay Connected to Science