Increasing temperatures associated with climate change may generate phenological mismatches that disrupt previously synchronous trophic interactions. Most work on mismatch has focused on temporal trends, whereas spatial variation in the degree of trophic synchrony has largely been neglected, even though the degree to which mismatch varies in space has implications for meso-scale population dynamics and evolution. Here we quantify latitudinal trends in phenological mismatch, using phenological data on an oak–caterpillar–bird system from across the UK. Increasing latitude delays phenology of all species, but more so for oak, resulting in a shorter interval between leaf emergence and peak caterpillar biomass at northern locations. Asynchrony found between peak caterpillar biomass and peak nestling demand of blue tits, great tits and pied flycatchers increases in earlier (warm) springs. There is no evidence of spatial variation in the timing of peak nestling demand relative to peak caterpillar biomass for any species. Phenological mismatch alone is thus unlikely to explain spatial variation in population trends. Given projections of continued spring warming, we predict that temperate forest birds will become increasingly mismatched with peak caterpillar timing. Latitudinal invariance in the direction of mismatch may act as a double-edged sword that presents no opportunities for spatial buffering from the effects of mismatch on population size, but generates spatially consistent directional selection on timing, which could facilitate rapid evolutionary change.

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We thank the many contributors of the UK Phenology Network and BTO Nest Record Scheme, as well as J. Hadfield for statistical advice and J. Shutt for helpful discussion. The UK Phenology Network is coordinated by the Woodland Trust. The Nest Record Scheme is a partnership jointly funded by the BTO, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and the fieldworkers themselves. A.B.P. was funded by a Natural Environment Research Council Advanced Fellowship (Ne/I020598/1).

Author information


  1. RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, Sandy, UK

    • Malcolm D. Burgess
  2. Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour, University of Exeter, Exeter, UK

    • Malcolm D. Burgess
  3. 15 Roman Fields, Chichester, UK

    • Ken W. Smith
  4. Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK

    • Karl L. Evans
  5. British Trust for Ornithology, The Nunnery, Thetford, UK

    • Dave Leech
    •  & James W. Pearce-Higgins
  6. Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK

    • James W. Pearce-Higgins
  7. Department of Biosciences, Durham University, Durham, UK

    • Claire J. Branston
    •  & Stephen G. Willis
  8. 1 Washington Drive, Warton, UK

    • Kevin Briggs
  9. 15 Kirkby Close, Southwell, UK

    • John R. Clark
  10. 66 High Street, Beckingham, UK

    • Chris R. du Feu
  11. Woodland Trust, Kempton Way, Grantham, UK

    • Kate Lewthwaite
  12. Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine, Graham Kerr Building, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK

    • Ruedi G. Nager
  13. Department of Zoology, Edward Grey Institute, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

    • Ben C. Sheldon
  14. School of Biosciences, Cardiff University, Cardiff, UK

    • Jeremy A. Smith
  15. Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Stirling, Stirling, UK

    • Robin C. Whytock
  16. Institute of Evolutionary Biology, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK

    • Albert B. Phillimore


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M.D.B., A.B.P. and K.W.S. conceived the study. M.D.B. led and coordinated the study. A.B.P. analysed the data. M.D.B. and A.B.P. wrote the manuscript with significant contributions from K.L.E. M.D.B., K.W.S., C.J.B., K.B., J.R.C., K.L.E., C.R.dF., R.G.N., B.C.S., J.A.S., R.C.W. and S.G.W. collected the frass data. K.L. provided the oak leafing data. D.L. and J.W.P.-H. provided the bird data. All authors commented on and edited the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Malcolm D. Burgess.

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