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Morphological variation in salamanders and their potential response to climate change

Ficetola, Gentile Francesco, Colleoni, Emiliano, Renaud, Julien, Scali, Stefano, Padoa‐Schioppa, Emilio, Thuiller, Wilfried
Global change biology 2016 v.22 no.6 pp. 2013-2024
biogeography, body size, case studies, climate, climate change, dry environmental conditions, evolution, geographical variation, models, phenotypic plasticity, planning, prediction, salamanders and newts, temperature, vertebrae
Despite the recognition that some species might quickly adapt to new conditions under climate change, demonstrating and predicting such a fundamental response is challenging. Morphological variations in response to climate may be caused by evolutionary changes or phenotypic plasticity, or both, but teasing apart these processes is difficult. Here, we built on the number of thoracic vertebrae (NTV) in ectothermic vertebrates, a known genetically based feature, to establish a link with body size and evaluate how climate change might affect the future morphological response of this group of species. First, we show that in old‐world salamanders, NTV variation is strongly related to changes in body size. Secondly, using 22 salamander species as a case study, we found support for relationships between the spatial variation in selected bioclimatic variables and NTV for most of species. For 44% of species, precipitation and aridity were the predominant drivers of geographical variation of the NTV. Temperature features were dominant for 31% of species, while for 19% temperature and precipitation played a comparable role. This two‐step analysis demonstrates that ectothermic vertebrates may evolve in response to climate change by modifying the number of thoracic vertebrae. These findings allow to develop scenarios for potential morphological evolution under future climate change and to identify areas and species in which the most marked evolutionary responses are expected. Resistance to climate change estimated from species distribution models was positively related to present‐day species morphological response, suggesting that the ability of morphological evolution may play a role for species’ persistence under climate change. The possibility that present‐day capacity for local adaptation might help the resistance response to climate change can be integrated into analyses of the impact of global changes and should also be considered when planning management actions favouring species persistence.