Eco-evolutionary processes underlying early warning signals of population declines


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Abstract

Environmental change can impact the stability of ecological systems and cause rapid declines in populations. Abundance-based early warning signals have been shown to precede such declines, but detection prior to wild population collapses has had limited success, leading to the development of warning signals based on shifts in distribution of fitness-related traits such as body size.The dynamics of population abundances and traits in response to external environmental perturbations are controlled by a range of underlying factors such as reproductive rate, genetic variation and plasticity. However, it remains unknown how such ecological and evolutionary factors affect the stability landscape of populations and the detectability of abundance and trait-based early warning signals.Here, we apply a trait-based demographic approach and investigate both trait and population dynamics in response to gradual and increasing changes in the environment. We explore a range of ecological and evolutionary constraints under which stability of a population may be affected.We show both analytically and with simulations that strength of abundance- and trait-based warning signals are affected by ecological and evolutionary factors.Finally, we show that combining trait- and abundance-based information improves our ability to predict population declines. Our study suggests that the inclusion of trait dynamic information alongside generic warning signals should provide more accurate forecasts of the future state of biological systems.This study links quantitative genetics, stability theory of dynamical systems and early warning signal of population declines. Furthermore, this study also shows how eco-evolutionary dynamics affect the stability of populations and predictability of population declines and compares the efficacy of early warning signals.

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