Phenotypic biomarkers of climatic impacts on declining insect populations: A key role for decadal drought, thermal buffering and amplification effects and host plant dynamics

Carnicer J., Stefanescu C., Vives-Ingla M., López C., Cortizas S., Wheat C., Vila R., Llusià J., Peñuelas J. (2019) Phenotypic biomarkers of climatic impacts on declining insect populations: A key role for decadal drought, thermal buffering and amplification effects and host plant dynamics. Journal of Animal Ecology. : 0-0.
Doi: 10.1111/1365-2656.12933


Widespread population declines have been reported for diverse Mediterranean butterflies over the last three decades, and have been significantly associated with increased global change impacts. The specific landscape and climatic drivers of these declines remain uncertain for most declining species. Here, we analyse whether plastic phenotypic traits of a model butterfly species (Pieris napi) perform as reliable biomarkers of vulnerability to extreme temperature impacts in natural populations, showing contrasting trends in thermally exposed and thermally buffered populations. We also examine whether improved descriptions of thermal exposure of insect populations can be achieved by combining multiple information sources (i.e., integrating measurements of habitat thermal buffering, habitat thermal amplification, host plant transpiration, and experimental assessments of thermal death time (TDT), thermal avoidance behaviour (TAB) and thermally induced trait plasticity). These integrative analyses are conducted in two demographically declining and two non-declining populations of P. napi. The results show that plastic phenotypic traits (butterfly body mass and wing size) are reliable biomarkers of population vulnerability to extreme thermal conditions. Butterfly wing size is strongly reduced only in thermally exposed populations during summer drought periods. Laboratory rearing of these populations documented reduced wing size due to significant negative effects of increased temperatures affecting larval growth. We conclude that these thermal biomarkers are indicative of the population vulnerability to increasing global warming impacts, showing contrasting trends in thermally exposed and buffered populations. Thermal effects in host plant microsites significantly differ between populations, with stressful thermal conditions only effectively ameliorated in mid-elevation populations. In lowland populations, we observe a sixfold reduction in vegetation thermal buffering effects, and larval growth occurs in these populations at significantly higher temperatures. Lowland populations show reduced host plant quality (C/N ratio), reduced leaf transpiration rates and complete above-ground plant senescence during the peak of summer drought. Amplified host plant temperatures are observed in open microsites, reaching thermal thresholds that can affect larval survival. Overall, our results suggest that butterfly population vulnerability to long-term drought periods is associated with multiple co-occurring and interrelated ecological factors, including limited vegetation thermal buffering effects at lowland sites, significant drought impacts on host plant transpiration and amplified leaf surface temperature, as well as reduced leaf quality linked to the seasonal advance of plant phenology. Our results also identify multiannual summer droughts affecting larval growing periods as a key driver of the recently reported butterfly population declines in the Mediterranean biome. © 2018 The Authors. Journal of Animal Ecology © 2018 British Ecological Society

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