Explaining responses to climate change in a wild vertebrate population

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Biological Sciences

Abstract

Recent changes in the earth's climate have been associated with numerous changes in animal and plant populations: for example, as temperatures have risen, the average timing of key events such as breeding has shifted substantially earlier in many species. However, we still have only limited knowledge of the actual mechanisms driving such responses to climate change. Importantly, we need to understand reasons for the changes that are occurring in the specific characteristics or traits (such as timing, growth or fecundity) that determine individuals' fitness and hence that shape a population's overall rate of growth or decline.

Changes in a population's characteristics over time could be driven by one, or more, of three different processes:
(i) population-level demographic changes in the representation of different age groups, each of which may display different trait values;
(ii) individual-level phenotypic plasticity, whereby an individual expresses a different value of a trait dependent on the environmental conditions it experiences;
(iii) genetic-level evolutionary change, whereby the genetic composition of the population changes in response to climate change favouring different genes under novel environmental conditions;

These contrasting mechanisms can all generate a trend in the average value of a trait over time, but they have different implications for continued responses to a changing environment, and for whether or not a population can 'keep up' with climate change. Dissecting their relative contributions requires detailed, long-term data-sets. Partly because of this, this analysis of the relative contributions from each mechanism to observed responses to climate change have not yet, to our knowledge, been quantified for any wild animal population. We propose to address this gap using a study of a wild population of red deer (Cervus elaphus) on the Isle of Rum, NW Scotland.

This project will enable an analysis of nearly four decades of data on more than 4000 individually-monitored deer. We will first explore the direct and indirect effects of climatic and/or vegetation variation on deer traits; this will require extensive assessments of changes in vegetation properties, for which we will use long-term ground-level and remote sensing data. Our primary aim is then to quantify the relative contributions of the three processes listed above to these trends. Finally, we will use insights from these analyses to create models of the dynamics of the population and of individual traits, and hence to generate predictions for future rates of population growth or decline.

The Rum red deer project is arguably the best data resource anywhere for this analysis. The new data collection we propose will provide detailed indications of changes in vegetation properties over the study period, as well as sufficient numbers of records of the morphology, reproductive success, survival, timing characteristics and behaviour of individuals across different decades to test the mechanisms outlined above. Our multi-generation, genetically-validated pedigree will enable us to estimate the extent to which individual characteristics are under genetic control, whether climate change has altered patterns of natural selection on these characteristics, and whether the population has shown an evolutionary response to this selection. We also have extensive experience of the complex statistical and modelling techniques required for the analysis.

Our ambition is to provide the most comprehensive analysis to date of how a wild animal population is responding to climate change and whether there are limits to its natural capacity to change. Our study will be the first of its kind. Given the importance of large herbivores to the way ecosystems function, our results will have implications for future management policy as well as offering fundamental insights into the mechanisms by which climate change affects wild populations.

Planned Impact

Our Impact Plan is designed to communicate our results to non-academic beneficiaries. It addresses two key areas: the opportunities to explain our findings to the general public, and the relevance of the research to wildlife management. Impact within the scientific community, including the use of our results for climate change policy reports, is covered in Academic Beneficiaries. Our Impact Plan includes the following actions:

Public Understanding of Science
1) Presentation of research findings through broadcast outputs such as the BBC AutumnWatch series.
2) Information about the research for visitors to the Isle of Rum, in the form of leaflets and talks to visiting school and college groups, and interpretive posters within a deer-viewing hide.
3) Presentation of the research in a new exhibit at the Royal Museum, National Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh.
4) Provision of materials and information for science fairs and educational events in schools.
5) Continued press releases about the research as it is published.
6) Improved non-academic, outward-pointing website about the research project.

Wildlife Management
7) An end-of-project workshop for wildlife managers which will include presentations from the research described in this proposal as well as that of other UK and European studies on large herbivores.
8) Presentations to wildlife managers at other events such as shows and seminars.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description Our work on this project has focussed on identifying the effect of climate on a wild red deer population. Through the use of path analysis, we identify both direct and indirect paths via which changes in environmental cues affect a series of maternal reproductive traits. The analysis demonstrates the need to understand both climatic and demographic impacts on trait values in order to understand the fitness impact of changes in phenological traits. This work has been published (Stopher et al, Ecology 2014). In further work, we have explored the details of phenotypic plasticity, and the extent to which it varies between individuals (Froy et al, J Evolutionary Biology 2019). We have also constructed an Integral Project Model with the purpose of describing the eco-evolutionary dynamics of key reproductive traits of offspring birth date and size, and the implications of trends in these for population dynamics (manuscript in prep). In addition, the availability of the long-term data has allowed us to re-test a famous finding that sons are most costly than daughters, the results of which are published in Biology Letters (Froy et al, 2016). Finally, we have recently published the first evidence that a shift in breeding time is due to both phenotypic plasticity in response to warming temperatures and evolutionary change (Bonnet et al, PLOS Biology 2019); this paper received widespread media and social media attention
Exploitation Route Results will be useful for management of ungulate populations under global climate change.
Sectors Environment

URL http://rumdeer.biology.ed.ac.uk/
 
Description In collaboration with Scottish Natural Heritage, we published a summary of results from our long-term study on red deer to allow the research to inform management of deer populations throughout Scotland. The booklet summarises the 40 years of research on our study population on the Isle of Rum (NW Scotland) and explains many findings that are relevant to effective deer management. The booklet was unveiled by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) at the Deer Management Round Table meeting in Battleby on 19 May 2015. 'Red deer research on the Isle of Rum NNR: management implications' by Josephine Pemberton and Loeske Kruuk is available at: http://www.snh.org.uk/pdfs/publications/nnr/Rum%20deer%20research%20on%20Rum%20NNR1.pdf The information in the booklet is currently being used in the development of deer management plans by Deer Management Groups throughout Scotland, but the results will also be relevant to management of ungulate populations in Northern Europe under global climate change. Our work also receives widespread attention from the general public, via presentations to visiting groups to Rum (in particular schools and colleges), our website (rumdeer.biology.ed.ac.uk) and our twitter-feed (@RumDeerResearch). The project received national attention by inclusion in BBC's Autumnwatch in 2015, reaching audiences of 100s of thousands.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Education,Environment,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism
Impact Types Economic

 
Description Edinburgh International Science Festival activity 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Interest from a wide range of people of different ages.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2009,2010,2011,2012,2013
URL http://rumdeer.biology.ed.ac.uk/
 
Description Presentations to visitors at study site (Isle of Rum) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We give informal presentations to many groups of visitors to the study site of the red deer project on the Isle of Rum (e.g. BBC fim crews, Anglia Ruskin University, Oatridge College, University of Central Lancashire, University of Edinburgh).


Increased profile of research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity Pre-2006,2006,2007,2008,2009,2010,2011,2012,2013,2014,2015
URL http://rumdeer.biology.ed.ac.uk/
 
Description Publication launch of booklet on Red Deer Management in Scotland with Scottish Natural Heritage 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact We published a summary of the decades of research on red deer on one of Scottish Natural Heritage's National Nature Reserves (NNRs) to allow the research to inform management of deer populations throughout Scotland. The booklet summarises the 40 years of research on our study population on the Isle of Rum (NW Scotland) and explains many findings that are relevant to effective deer management.

The booklet was unveiled by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) at the Deer Management Round Table meeting in Battleby on 19 May 2015.

"Red deer research on the Isle of Rum NNR: management implications", by Josephine Pemberton and Loeske Kruuk is available at:
http://www.snh.org.uk/pdfs/publications/nnr/Rum%20deer%20research%20on%20Rum%20NNR1.pdf

The information in the booklet is currently being used in the development of deer management plans by Deer Management Groups throughout Scotland.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://www.snh.org.uk/pdfs/publications/nnr/Rum%20deer%20research%20on%20Rum%20NNR1.pdf
 
Description University of Edinburgh Open Days 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Display of research relating to the Rum red deer project.

Increased profile of the project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011,2012,2013,2014
URL http://rumdeer.biology.ed.ac.uk/