One consequence of rising spring temperatures is that the optimum timing of key life-history events may advance. Where this is the case, a population's fate may depend on the degree to which it is able to track a change in the optimum timing either via plasticity or via adaptation. Estimating the effect that temperature change will have on optimum timing using standard approaches is logistically challenging, with the result that very few estimates of this important parameter exist. Here we adopt an alternative statistical method that substitutes space for time to estimate the temperature sensitivity of the optimum timing of 22 plant species based on >200 000 spatiotemporal phenological observations from across the United Kingdom. We find that first leafing and flowering dates are sensitive to forcing (spring) temperatures, with optimum timing advancing by an average of 3 days °C−1 and plastic responses to forcing between −3 and −8 days °C−1. Chilling (autumn/winter) temperatures and photoperiod tend to be important cues for species with early and late phenology, respectively. For most species, we find that plasticity is adaptive, and for seven species, plasticity is sufficient to track geographic variation in the optimum phenology. For four species, we find that plasticity is significantly steeper than the optimum slope that we estimate between forcing temperature and phenology, and we examine possible explanations for this countergradient pattern, including local adaptation.
We use spatiotemporal spring phenology observations for 22 UK plant species to estimate the temperature-mediated plasticity of each species and the degree to which optimum timing changes with temperature. We find that all species are highly plastic and that in most cases, this plasticity is adaptive (i.e. it partially tracks temperature-mediated changes in the phenological optimum).