Ecophysiological variation across a forest-ecotone gradient produces divergent climate change vulnerability within species

3 December 2017

Landry Yuan, Felix; Freedman, Adam; Chirio, Laurent; LeBreton, Matthew; Bonebrake, Tim

Climate change related risks and impacts on ectotherms will be mediated by habitats and their influence on local thermal environments. While many studies have documented morphological and genetic aspects of niche divergence across habitats, few have examined thermal performance across such gradients and directly linked this variation to contemporary climate change impacts. In this study, we quantified variation in thermal performance across a gradient from forest to gallery forest-savanna mosaic in Cameroon for a skink species (Trachylepis affinis) known to be diverging genetically and morphologically across that habitat gradient. Based on these results, we then applied a mechanistic modelling approach (NicheMapR) to project changes in potential activity, as constrained by thermal performance, in response to climate change. As a complimentary approach, we also compared mechanistic projections with climate-driven changes in habitat suitability based on species distribution models of forest and ecotone skinks. We found that ecotone skinks may benefit from warming and experience increased activity while forest skinks will likely face a drastic decrease in thermal suitability across the forest zone. Species distribution models projected that thermal suitability for forest skinks in coastal forests would decline but in other parts of the forest zone skinks are projected to experience increased thermal suitability. The results here highlight the utility of mechanistic approaches in revealing and understanding patterns of climate change vulnerability which may not be detected with species distribution models alone. This study also emphasizes the importance of intra-specific physiological variation, and habitat-specific thermal performance relationships in particular, in determining warming responses.