Letter | Published:

A global synthesis of animal phenological responses to climate change

Nature Climate Changevolume 8pages224228 (2018) | Download Citation


Shifts in phenology are already resulting in disruptions to the timing of migration and breeding, and asynchronies between interacting species1,2,3,4,5. Recent syntheses have concluded that trophic level1, latitude6 and how phenological responses are measured7 are key to determining the strength of phenological responses to climate change. However, researchers still lack a comprehensive framework that can predict responses to climate change globally and across diverse taxa. Here, we synthesize hundreds of published time series of animal phenology from across the planet to show that temperature primarily drives phenological responses at mid-latitudes, with precipitation becoming important at lower latitudes, probably reflecting factors that drive seasonality in each region. Phylogeny and body size are associated with the strength of phenological shifts, suggesting emerging asynchronies between interacting species that differ in body size, such as hosts and parasites and predators and prey. Finally, although there are many compelling biological explanations for spring phenological delays, some examples of delays are associated with short annual records that are prone to sampling error. Our findings arm biologists with predictions concerning which climatic variables and organismal traits drive phenological shifts.

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Change history

  • 21 February 2018

    In the PDF version of this Letter originally published, Fig. 3 was a duplicate of Fig. 1. This has now been corrected. The HTML version was unaffected.


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We thank N. Argento and C. Gionet for assistance extracting data from studies, T. James for assistance compiling references, C. Parmesan for helpful discussions on vernalization and phenological meta-analyses in general, and D. Civitello, B. Delius, N. Halstead, S. Knutie, K. Nguyen, N. Ortega, B. Roznik, E. Sauer and S. Young for comments that resulted in significant improvements to the manuscript. This research was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation to M.J.L (DBI-1262545, DEB-1451031) and J.R.R. (EF-1241889, DEB-1518681) and National Institutes of Health (R01GM109499, R01TW010286), US Department of Agriculture (NRI 2006–01370, 2009-35102-0543) and US Environmental Protection Agency (CAREER 83518801) to J.R.R.

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  1. Department of Integrative Biology, University of South Florida, Tampa, FL, USA

    • Jeremy M. Cohen
    • , Marc J. Lajeunesse
    •  & Jason R. Rohr


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J.M.C., M.J.L., and J.R.R. contributed ideas and devised the analyses. J.M.C. assembled the database of phenological time-series and collected climate data. M.J.L. designed and conducted the analyses. J.M.C., M.J.L. and J.R.R. wrote the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jeremy M. Cohen.

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  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary Figures 1–6, Supplementary Tables 1–8, Supplementary Code, Supplementary References and PRISMA Checklist

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