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Open Access Research article

Influence of life history strategies on sensitivity, population growth and response to climate for sympatric alpine birds

Scott Wilson13* and Kathy Martin12

Author affiliations

1 Department of Forest Sciences, University of British Columbia, 2424 Main Mall, Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z4, Canada

2 Environment Canada, 5421 Robertson Road, Delta, British Columbia, V4K 3 N2, Canada

3 Present address: Canadian Wildlife Service, Environment Canada, 115 Perimeter Road, Saskatoon, SK, S7N 0X4, Canada

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Citation and License

BMC Ecology 2012, 12:9  doi:10.1186/1472-6785-12-9

Published: 29 June 2012



The life history strategy of a species can influence how populations of that species respond to environmental variation. In this study, we used a matrix modeling approach to examine how life history differences among sympatric rock and white-tailed ptarmigan affect the influence of demographic rates on population growth (λ) and the potential response to a changing climate. Rock ptarmigan have a slower life history strategy than white-tailed ptarmigan in the study region with lower annual reproductive effort but higher adult survival.


Based on data from a 5-year field study, deterministic estimates of λ indicated that populations were stable for rock ptarmigan (λ = 1.01), but declining for white-tailed ptarmigan (λ = 0.96). The demographic rates with the highest elasticity for rock ptarmigan were the survival of after-second year females, followed by juvenile survival and success of the first nest. For white-tailed ptarmigan, juvenile survival had the highest elasticity followed by success of the first nest and survival of second-year females. Incorporating stochasticity into the demographic rates led to a 2 and 4% drop in λ for rock and white-tailed ptarmigan respectively. Using data from the first three years we also found that population growth rates of both species were depressed following an increased frequency of severe years, but less so for rock ptarmigan which showed greater resilience under these conditions.


Our results provide evidence that populations of closely related species can vary in their response to environmental change as a consequence of life history differences. Rock ptarmigan, with a slower life history, are more responsive to demographic rates that influence survival and older life stages but this response is tempered by the extent of variability in each of the rates. Thus, predictions need to consider both aspects in modeling population response to a varying climate. Juvenile survival was a highly influential rate for both species, but the period from independence to first breeding is a poorly understood stage for many bird species. Additional study on juvenile survival, the influence of density dependence and the effects of predators as the mechanism driving survival-reproduction tradeoffs are all areas requiring further study.

Alpine; Climate change; Elasticity; Life history variation; Population growth; Ptarmigan; Reproductive effort; Survival