Poor environmental tracking can make extinction risk insensitive to the colour of environmental noise

The relative importance of environmental colour for extinction risk compared with other aspects of environmental noise (mean and interannual variability) is poorly understood. Such knowledge is currently relevant, as climate change can cause the mean, variability and temporal autocorrelation of environmental variables to change. Here, we predict that the extinction risk of a shorebird population increases with the colour of a key environmental variable: winter temperature. However, the effect is weak compared with the impact of changes in the mean and interannual variability of temperature. Extinction risk was largely insensitive to noise colour, because demographic rates are poor in tracking the colour of the environment. We show that three mechanisms—which probably act in many species—can cause poor environmental tracking: (i) demographic rates that depend nonlinearly on environmental variables filter the noise colour, (ii) demographic rates typically depend on several environmental signals that do not change colour synchronously, and (iii) demographic stochasticity whitens the colour of demographic rates at low population size. We argue that the common practice of assuming perfect environmental tracking may result in overemphasizing the importance of noise colour for extinction risk. Consequently, ignoring environmental autocorrelation in population viability analysis could be less problematic than generally thought.

Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences, 278: 3713-3722

Van de Pol M., Vindenes Y., Sæther B.E., Engen S., Ens B.J., Oosterbeek K., Tinbergen J.M.



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