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Title: Wildflower phenological escape differs by continent and spring temperature
Abstract Temperate understory plant species are at risk from climate change and anthropogenic threats that include increased deer herbivory, habitat loss, pollinator declines and mismatch, and nutrient pollution. Recent work suggests that spring ephemeral wildflowers may be at additional risk due to phenological mismatch with deciduous canopy trees. The study of this dynamic, commonly referred to as “phenological escape”, and its sensitivity to spring temperature is limited to eastern North America. Here, we use herbarium specimens to show that phenological sensitivity to spring temperature is remarkably conserved for understory wildflowers across North America, Europe, and Asia, but that canopy trees in North America are significantly more sensitive to spring temperature compared to in Asia and Europe. We predict that advancing tree phenology will lead to decreasing spring light windows in North America while spring light windows will be maintained or even increase in Asia and Europe in response to projected climate warming.  more » « less
Award ID(s):
1936971 1936960 2223675
Author(s) / Creator(s):
; ; ; ; ; ;
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Nature Communications
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
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  1. Abstract

    Interacting species can respond differently to climate change, causing unexpected consequences. Many understorey wildflowers in deciduous forests leaf out and flower in the spring when light availability is the highest before overstorey canopy closure. Therefore, different phenological responses by understorey and overstorey species to increased spring temperature could have significant ecological implications. Pairing contemporary data with historical observations initiated by Henry David Thoreau (1850s), we found that overstorey tree leaf out is more responsive to increased spring temperature than understorey wildflower phenology, resulting in shorter periods of high light in the understorey before wildflowers are shaded by tree canopies. Because of this overstorey–understorey mismatch, we estimate that wildflower spring carbon budgets in the northeastern United States were 12–26% larger during Thoreau's era and project a 10–48% reduction during this century. This underappreciated phenomenon may have already reduced wildflower fitness and could lead to future population declines in these ecologically important species.

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  3. Abstract

    Phenological escape, a strategy that deciduous understory plants use to access direct light in spring by leafing out before the canopy closes, plays an important role in shaping the recruitment of temperate tree seedlings. Previous studies have investigated how climate change will alter these dynamics for herbaceous species, but there is a knowledge gap related to how woody species such as tree seedlings will be affected. Here, we modeled temperate tree seedling leaf‐out phenology and canopy close phenology in response to environmental drivers and used climate change projections to forecast changes to the duration of spring phenological escape. We then used these predictions to estimate changes in annual carbon assimilation while accounting for reduced carbon assimilation rates associated with hotter and drier summers. Lastly, we applied these estimates to previously published models of seedling growth and survival to investigate the net effect on seedling demographic performance. Our models predict that temperate tree seedlings will experience improved phenological escape and, therefore, increased spring carbon assimilation under climate change conditions. However, increased summer respiration costs will offset the gains in spring under extreme climate change leading to a net loss in annual carbon assimilation and demographic performance. Furthermore, we found that annual carbon assimilation predictions depend strongly on the species of nearby canopy tree that seedlings were planted near, with all seedlings projected to assimilate less carbon (and therefore experience worse demographic performance) when planted nearQuercus rubracanopy trees as opposed toAcer saccharumcanopy trees. We conclude that changes to spring phenological escape will have important effects on how tree seedling recruitment is affected by climate change, with the magnitude of these effects dependent upon climate change severity and biological interactions with neighboring adults. Thus, future studies of temperate forest recruitment should account for phenological escape dynamics in their models.

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  4. Abstract Aim

    Phenological mismatches, when life‐events become mistimed with optimal environmental conditions, have become increasingly common under climate change. Population‐level susceptibility to mismatches depends on how phenology and phenotypic plasticity vary across a species’ distributional range. Here, we quantify the environmental drivers of colour moult phenology, phenotypic plasticity, and the extent of phenological mismatch in seasonal camouflage to assess vulnerability to mismatch in a common North American mammal.


    North America.

    Time period


    Major taxa studied

    Snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus).


    We used > 5,500 by‐catch photographs of snowshoe hares from 448 remote camera trap sites at three independent study areas. To quantify moult phenology and phenotypic plasticity, we used multinomial logistic regression models that incorporated geospatial and high‐resolution climate data. We estimated occurrence of camouflage mismatch between hares’ coat colour and the presence and absence of snow over 7 years of monitoring.


    Spatial and temporal variation in moult phenology depended on local climate conditions more so than on latitude. First, hares in colder, snowier areas moulted earlier in the fall and later in the spring. Next, hares exhibited phenotypic plasticity in moult phenology in response to annual variation in temperature and snow duration, especially in the spring. Finally, the occurrence of camouflage mismatch varied in space and time; white hares on dark, snowless background occurred primarily during low‐snow years in regions characterized by shallow, short‐lasting snowpack.

    Main conclusions

    Long‐term climate and annual variation in snow and temperature determine coat colour moult phenology in snowshoe hares. In most areas, climate change leads to shorter snow seasons, but the occurrence of camouflage mismatch varies across the species’ range. Our results underscore the population‐specific susceptibility to climate change‐induced stressors and the necessity to understand this variation to prioritize the populations most vulnerable under global environmental change.

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  5. Abstract

    Understorey plants in deciduous forests often rely on access to ephemeral light availability before the canopy closes in spring and after the canopy reopens in fall, a strategy commonly referred to as phenological escape. Although there is evidence for a relationship between understorey plant phenology and demographic performance, a mechanistic link is still missing.

    In this study, we bridged this gap by estimating annual carbon assimilation as a function of foliar phenology and photosynthetic capacity for seedlings of two temperate tree species that commonly co‐occur across eastern North America. We then modelled the relationship between estimated carbon assimilation and observed seedling survival and growth.

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    Our results indicate that spring phenological escape is critical for survival of these temperate tree species, and thus, any changes to this dynamic associated with climate change could strongly impact these species' recruitment.

    A freePlain Language Summarycan be found within the Supporting Information of this article.

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