GLOBAL CHANGE ECOLOGY
We know from ecological first principles that wildlife populations will respond in one of three ways to rapid climate change: move, adapt, or die. However, the potential for local adaptation through either plasticity or natural selection is poorly understood and rarely considered in the context of conservation planning despite the selective pressure that climate change inflicts on myriad species. As one of ~21 species worldwide that relies of crypsis for survival, snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) have emerged as an exciting eco-evolutionary model to investigate the response of seasonal coat color changing species that are confronting one of the strongest signals of climate change, the reduction in duration of winter snowpack. The WECOS collaborates with a diverse network of scientists across the United States and around the world to investigate morphological, physiological, and behavioral responses of snowshoe hare to rapid climate change as well as contributing to studies applying cutting-edge tools such as next-generation sequencing and transcriptomics to unravel the genetic basis of seasonal coat color change.
CAN ANIMAL PERSONALITY FACILITATE ADAPTATION TO CLIMATE CHANGE?
Among-individual personality differences in wild animals has emerged as an important factor that can structure population dynamics, community interactions, ecosystem processes as well as individual responses to environmental change. While ecologists increasingly appreciate the role animal personalities have in diverse ecological and evolutionary processes, whether variation in personality will facilitate or hinder species’ responses to ongoing rapid climate change is largely unknown. As a keystone prey species directly impacted by climate change, snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) are an excellent model species to (a) evaluate whether individuals exhibit repeatable differences in behavior and whether behaviors are influenced by the background color, which determines fitness-relevant camouflage and (b) assess whether snowshoe hare behaviors are temporally plastic. To investigate whether animal personal may facilitate adaptation to climate change, The WECOS Lab collaborates with the The Mills Lab at University of Montana using a combination of controlled behavioral experiments with a collection of captive snowshoe hares within an open-field framework and field-based studies on free-ranging snowshoe hares. Though studies are ongoing, we have found that snowshoe hares exhibit significant repeatability in several behaviors associated with risk-taking as well as their background preferences, the latter, which aids in crypsis. Significant individual differences in behavior and the relative influence of being matched or mismatched to the background indicate that among-individual variation may have important implications to snowshoe hare ecology, particularly in regards to a changing environment.
COAT COLOR POLYMORPHISMS & PHENOLOGY
Color polymorphisms represent visually intriguing expressions of genetic and phenotypic variation and thus have historically and continue to be important to the study of evolutionary and ecological processes that generate and maintain biodiversity. Common throughout the Animal Kingdom and functionally universal, color polymorphisms occur across all trophic levels and play important roles in thermoregulation, sexual signaling, disruptive signaling, warning coloration and facilitating crypsis. While color polymorphisms are not uncommon, only ~21 species worldwide are known to seasonally change color in order to maintain crypsis as environmental conditions change. For example, snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) and long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata) undergo seasonal coat color change from summer brown to winter white and back to summer brown to track the seasonal presence or absence of snow. However, across the geographic range of seasonal coat color changing species, not all individuals undergo a seasonal coat color change. Consequently, multiple color morphs often persist together in a single population. The WECOS Lab collaborates with a diverse network of scientists from across the United States and around the world to investigate within and among-species variation in coat color polymorphisms, molt phenology, behavioral plasticity in response to coat color mismatch, physiological stress responses relative to camouflage mismatch and to examine the underlying genetic basis for coat color polymorphisms. We hope our work will offer novel opportunities to integrate evolutionary processes into conservation planning as we strive to conserve biodiversity in a rapidly warming world.