Environmental variation and population responses to global change

Callum R. Lawson, Yngvild Vindenes, Liam Bailey, Martijn van de Pol

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Species' responses to environmental changes such as global warming are affected not only by trends in mean conditions, but also by natural and human-induced environmental fluctuations. Methods are needed to predict how such environmental variation affects ecological and evolutionary processes, in order to design effective strategies to conserve biodiversity under global change. Here, we review recent theoretical and empirical studies to assess: (1) how populations respond to changes in environmental variance, and (2) how environmental variance affects population responses to changes in mean conditions. Contrary to frequent claims, empirical studies show that increases in environmental variance can increase as well as decrease long-term population growth rates. Moreover, environmental variance can alter and even reverse the effects of changes in the mean environment, such that even if environmental variance remains constant, omitting it from population models compromises their ability to predict species' responses to changes in mean conditions. Drawing on theory relating these effects of environmental variance to the curvatures of population growth responses to the environment, we outline how species' traits such as phylogenetic history and body mass could be used to predict their responses to global change under future environmental variability.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)724-736
JournalEcology Letters
Issue number7
Early online date20 Apr 2015
Publication statusPublished - 2015


  • Climate change
  • climate fluctuations
  • climate variation
  • demographic rates
  • extreme events
  • functional type
  • global warming
  • stochastic growth rate
  • temperature variation
  • thermal performance
  • international


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