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Selection counteracts developmental plasticity in body-size responses to climate change


Body-size reductions are a pervasive response to climate change, and body size is a central trait linking together multiple axes of ecology, physiology and life history. Using a combination of three decades of data and controlled experiments, we show that male and female tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) have become smaller structurally, despite chicks growing larger under warmer nest temperatures and larger chicks being more likely to return as adults. We find that adult structural size trends are associated with warmer overwintering conditions, rather than the nestling period. Further, adult male body mass trends depend on climate conditions during spring migration; male breeding mass decreased by 4%, whereas female mass was unchanged. This may be explained by the demands of reproduction, as lighter females produce fewer offspring. This work highlights the complex interactions that shape relationships between traits and fitness, which will be critical for predicting evolutionary responses in future environments.

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Fig. 1: Trends in morphology of male and female tree swallows from 1986–2020.
Fig. 2: Wild tree swallow chick measurements in relation to daily average temperatures.
Fig. 3: Morphology of unsexed tree swallow chicks raised on an isocaloric diet at different experimental nest temperatures.
Fig. 4: Environmental changes in the annual cycle of tree swallows.
Fig. 5: Relationship between adult morphology and fledglings produced.

Data availability

All datasets utilized in this study are publicly available. Daily temperature data is provided via the global historical climatology network (GHNCd) from ( Geolocation data on tree swallows is provided via the Dryad online repository at ( Data on tree swallow morphology of both adults and chicks is provided via Dryad at (

Code availability

The code used in the analysis to arrive at the conclusions in this manuscript are provided via Dryad at (


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We would like to thank the dozens of undergraduate field crew who collected data at the Ithaca field site, making this project possible. This work is supported through funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) IBN-0131437, DEB-0717021 and DEB-1242573 (to D.W.W.) and NSF IOS-1457251 (to M.N.V.).

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Authors and Affiliations



This study was conceived by J.R.S. and D.W.W. with inputs from all coauthors. Both D.W.W. and M.N.V. provided long-term data on juvenile and adult tree swallow morphology. J.R.S. analysed data with assistance from D.W.W., and J.R.S. and C.W.T. wrote the manuscript with significant contributions from C.C.T., M.N.V. and D.W.W.

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Correspondence to J. Ryan Shipley.

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Nature Climate Change thanks Jan-Åke Nilsson and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Sample sites for weather data from the global historical climatology network (GHNCd) from 1986–2020.

a) Weather stations within 100 km from the Ithaca, NY site (42.5037 N, −76.4661) used during the reproduction life history stage. b) Weather data sampled within 177 km of the overwintering habitat of Ithaca Tree Swallows (26.6503 N, −81.5003 W). c) Weather station sites sampled within 177 km of the midpoint during spring migration (36.2908 N, −78.4121 W) as they return to breed in Ithaca, NY. All points are determined via direct observation of from geolocators from Tree Swallows recaptured in Ithaca, NY.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Summary statistics of chicks sampled from 1986–2020.

a) Tree Swallow chicks gain mass rapidly post hatching; however, growth rate slows after approximately day 12. b) The majority of chicks were sampled around 10 days post hatch. c) Annual counts of chicks that were measured by year.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Tree Swallow chick body mass in relationship to survival from 1986–2020.

a) The probability of recapture increases from 75 to more than 90 percent for chicks between 15 and 20 grams at day 12 post hatch. b) In all years where chicks were recaptured, recaptured chicks were typically more than 1 standard deviation larger than the annual mean for all chicks in their hatch year. c.) When compiled across all years, both recaptured male and female chicks are consistently larger than their non recaptured counterparts.

Extended Data Table 1 Model selection of generalized linear mixed models between habitat and annual measurements of Tree Swallow adults

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Shipley, J.R., Twining, C.W., Taff, C.C. et al. Selection counteracts developmental plasticity in body-size responses to climate change. Nat. Clim. Chang. 12, 863–868 (2022).

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