The impacts of climate change on phenological responses of species and communities are well-documented; however, many such studies are correlational and so less effective at assessing the causal links between changes in climate and changes in phenology. Using grasshopper communities found along an elevational gradient, we present an ideal system along the Front Range of Colorado USA that provides a mechanistic link between climate and phenology.
This study utilizes past (1959–1960) and present (2006–2008) surveys of grasshopper communities and daily temperature records to quantify the relationship between amount and timing of warming across years and elevations, and grasshopper timing to adulthood. Grasshopper communities were surveyed at four sites, Chautauqua Mesa (1752 m), A1 (2195 m), B1 (2591 m), and C1 (3048 m), located in prairie, lower montane, upper montane, and subalpine life zones, respectively. Changes to earlier first appearance of adults depended on the degree to which a site warmed. The lowest site showed little warming and little phenological advancement. The next highest site (A1) warmed a small, but significant, amount and grasshopper species there showed inconsistent phenological advancements. The two highest sites warmed the most, and at these sites grasshoppers showed significant phenological advancements. At these sites, late-developing species showed the greatest advancements, a pattern that correlated with an increase in rate of late-season warming. The number of growing degree days (GDDs) associated with the time to adulthood for a species was unchanged across the past and present surveys, suggesting that phenological advancement depended on when a set number of GDDs is reached during a season.
Our analyses provide clear evidence that variation in amount and timing of warming over the growing season explains the vast majority of phenological variation in this system. Our results move past simple correlation and provide a stronger process-oriented and predictive framework for understanding community level phenological responses to climate change.