Great Tits Built to Survive Climate Change?

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Early birds get worms in the evolutionary race against climate change.

The great tit (Parus major), a small bird, depends on a boom in caterpillar numbers in the spring to feed their young. However, spring and the caterpillar buffet now arrive earlier due to a warming global climate. If the birds were hard-wired to lay their eggs at the same time every year, they would miss the spring insect surge. That caterpillar catastrophe would leave many young birds starving.

However, great tits in England now lay their eggs earlier in the year which allows the early birds to catch the caterpillar boom, according to a study published in PLOS Biology.

Great tits now lay their eggs an average of two weeks earlier than they did 50 years ago. The birds’ rate of change could allow them to adapt to global warming of 0.5 degrees Celsius per year, suggested the study’s authors from the University of Oxford.

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The key to the great tits’ survival comes from a biological ability known as phenotypic plasticity. Phenotype refers to the physical expression of a living thing’s genetic code along with the influence of environmental factors on the creature. The ability of species to adapt behaviors and physical characteristics to meet environmental needs is phenotypic plasticity.

Smaller birds with faster life cycles, such as the great tit, may have the phenotypic plasticity needed to keep up with climate change. However, other creatures that take longer to reproduce may face challenges.

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“Our results show us under what conditions we can expect species to be able to cope with a changing environment, and under what conditions we should be more pessimistic,” lead author Ben Sheldon said in a press release. “We should be particularly concerned about slow-reproducing species, for which the need to show just the right response to the environment is particularly crucial. A key area for future work is to understand why some species respond by the right amount, and others show the wrong response.”

IMAGE: The great tit (Paul Friel, Wikimedia Commons)