Camouflage mismatch in seasonal coat color due to decreased snow duration

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Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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Most examples of seasonal mismatches in phenology span multiple trophic levels, with timing of animal reproduction, hibernation, or migration becoming detached from peak food supply. The consequences of such mismatches are difficult to link to specific future climate change scenarios because the responses across trophic levels have complex underlying climate drivers often confounded by other stressors. In contrast, seasonal coat color polyphenism creating camouflage against snow is a direct and potentially severe type of seasonal mismatch if crypsis becomes compromised by the animal being white when snow is absent. It is unknown whether plasticity in the initiation or rate of coat color change will be able to reduce mismatch between the seasonal coat color and an increasingly snow-free background. We find that natural populations of snowshoe hares exposed to 3 y of widely varying snowpack have plasticity in the rate of the spring white-to-brown molt, but not in either the initiation dates of color change or the rate of the fall brown-to-white molt. Using an ensemble of locally downscaled climate projections, we also show that annual average duration of snowpack is forecast to decrease by 29–35 d by midcentury and 40–69 d by the end of the century. Without evolution in coat color phenology, the reduced snow duration will increase the number of days that white hares will be mismatched on a snowless background by four- to eightfold by the end of the century. This novel and visually compelling climate change-induced stressor likely applies to >9 widely distributed mammals with seasonal coat color.




© 2013 National Academy of Sciences

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