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Estimating the ability of plants to plastically track temperature-mediated shifts in the spring phenological optimum

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    Rights statement: 2017 The Authors Global Change Biology Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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    Licence: Creative Commons: Attribution (CC-BY)

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3321–333
Number of pages15
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 10 Feb 2017


One consequence of rising spring temperatures is that the optimum timing of key life history events may advance. Where this is the case, a population’s fate may depend on the degree to which it is able to track a change in the optimum timing either via plasticity or via adaptation. Estimating the effect that temperature change will have on optimum timing using standard approaches is logistically challenging, with the result that very few estimates of this important parameter exist. Here we adopt an alternative statistical method that substitutes space for time to estimate the temperature-sensitivity of the optimum timing of 22 plant species based on >200,000 spatiotemporal phenological observations from across the UK. We find that first leafing and flowering dates are sensitive to forcing (spring) temperatures, with optimum timing advancing by 3 days°C-1 and plastic responses to forcing between -3 and -8 days°C-1. Chilling (autumn/winter) temperatures and photoperiod tend to be important cues for species with early and late phenology respectively. For most species we find that plasticity is adaptive and for seven species plasticity is sufficient to track geographic variation in the optimum phenology. For four species we find that plasticity is significantly steeper than the optimum slope that we estimate between forcing temperature and phenology, and we examine possible explanations for this countergradient pattern, including local adaptation.

    Research areas

  • phenology, local adaptation, plasticity, citizen science, photoperiod, forcing, chilling, space-for-time

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