Winter wren populations show adaptation to local climate

Catriona A. Morrison, Robert A. Robinson, James W. Pearce-Higgins

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Most studies of evolutionary responses to climate change have focused on phenological responses to warming, and provide only weak evidence for evolutionary adaptation. This could be because phenological changes are more weakly linked to fitness than more direct mechanisms of climate change impacts, such as selective mortality during extreme weather events which have immediate fitness consequences for the individuals involved. Studies examining these other mechanisms may be more likely to show evidence for evolutionary adaptation. To test this, we quantify regional population responses of a small resident passerine (winter wren Troglodytes troglodytes) to a measure of winter severity (number of frost days). Annual population growth rate was consistently negatively correlated with this measure, but the point at which different populations achieved stability (λ = 1) varied across regions and was closely correlated with the historic average number of frost days, providing strong evidence for local adaptation. Despite this, regional variation in abundance remained negatively related to the regional mean number of winter frost days, potentially as a result of a time-lag in the rate of evolutionary response to climate change. As expected from Bergmann's rule, individual wrens were heavier in colder regions, suggesting that local adaptation may be mediated through body size. However, there was no evidence for selective mortality of small individuals in cold years, with annual variation in mean body size uncorrelated with the number of winter frost days, so the extent to which local adaptation occurs through changes in body size, or another mechanism remains uncertain.
Original languageEnglish
Article number160250
JournalRoyal Society Open Science
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2016


  • adaptation
  • climate change
  • temperature
  • winter wren
  • population change
  • micro-evolution

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