Effects of Seasonal Weather on Breeding Phenology and Reproductive Success of Alpine Ptarmigan in Colorado
Animal populations occurring at high elevations are often assumed to be in peril of extinctions or local extirpations due to elevational-dispersal limitations and thermoregulatory constraints as habitats change and warm. However, long-term monitoring of high-elevation populations is uncommon relative to those occurring at lower elevations, and evidence supporting this assumption is limited.
We analyzed 45 years of reproductive data for two Colorado populations of white-tailed ptarmigan (Lagopus leucura), an alpine-endemic species with restricted distribution in western North America. Seasonal temperatures measured by the number of growing degree days warmed significantly at our study sites for pre-nesting, nesting, and brood-rearing seasonal periods (mean advance of 8 growing degree days per decade), and both populations advanced their reproductive phenology over the study period based on median hatch dates (median advance of 3.7 and 1.9 days per decade for the northern and southern sites, respectively).
Reproductive performance measured by the number of chicks per hen declined significantly at one study site but not the other, and differences between sites may have been due to habitat degradation at one study area. Annual variability in chicks per hen was large at both sites but only weakly related to seasonal weather. An index of precipitation and temperature during the brood-rearing period was the best predictor for reproductive success with warm and dry conditions relating positively to number of chicks per hen.
Our results provide evidence for two alpine ptarmigan populations that are remarkably invariant to fluctuations in seasonal weather with respect to reproductive success as measured by number of chicks per hen in the breeding population. These results are surprising given the general perception of alpine animal populations as being highly sensitive to warming temperatures.