The ecological consequences of climate change have been recognized in numerous species, with perhaps phenology being the most well-documented change. Phenological changes may have negative consequences when organisms within different trophic levels respond to environmental changes at different rates, potentially leading to phenological mismatches between predators and their prey. This may be especially apparent in the Arctic, which has been affected more by climate change than other regions, resulting in earlier, warmer, and longer summers. During a 7-year study near Utqiaġvik (formerly Barrow), Alaska, we estimated phenological mismatch in relation to food availability and chick growth in a community of Arctic-breeding shorebirds experiencing advancement of environmental conditions (i.e., snowmelt). Our results indicate that Arctic-breeding shorebirds have experienced increased phenological mismatch with earlier snowmelt conditions. However, the degree of phenological mismatch was not a good predictor of food availability, as weather conditions after snowmelt made invertebrate availability highly unpredictable. As a result, the food available to shorebird chicks that were 2–10 days old was highly variable among years (ranging from 6.2 to 28.8 mg trap−1 day−1 among years in eight species), and was often inadequate for average growth (only 20%–54% of Dunlin and Pectoral Sandpiper broods on average had adequate food across a 4-year period). Although weather conditions vary among years, shorebirds that nested earlier in relation to snowmelt generally had more food available during brood rearing, and thus, greater chick growth rates. Despite the strong selective pressure to nest early, advancement of nesting is likely limited by the amount of plasticity in the start and progression of migration. Therefore, long-term climatic changes resulting in earlier snowmelt have the potential to greatly affect shorebird populations, especially if shorebirds are unable to advance nest initiation sufficiently to keep pace with seasonal advancement of their invertebrate prey.

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Ecology and Evolution

Saalfeld, S.T. (Sarah T.), McEwen, D.C. (Daniel C.), Kesler, D.C. (Dylan C.), Butler, M.G. (Malcolm G.), Cunningham, J.A. (Jenny A.), Doll, A.C. (Andrew C.), … Lanctot, R.B. (Richard B.). (2019). Phenological mismatch in Arctic-breeding shorebirds: Impact of snowmelt and unpredictable weather conditions on food availability and chick growth. Ecology and Evolution, 9(11), 6693–6707. doi:10.1002/ece3.5248