Phenological shifts and the fate of mutualisms

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Abstract

Climate change is altering the timing of life history events in a wide array of species, many of which are involved in mutualistic interactions. Because many mutualisms can form only if partner species are able to locate each other in time, differential phenological shifts are likely to influence their strength, duration and outcome. At the extreme, climate change-driven shifts in phenology may result in phenological mismatch: the partial or complete loss of temporal overlap of mutualistic species. We have a growing understanding of how, when, and why phenological change can alter one type of mutualism–pollination. However, as we show here, there has been a surprising lack of attention to other types of mutualism. We generate a set of predictions about the characteristics that may predispose mutualisms in general to phenological mismatches. We focus not on the consequences of such mismatches but rather on the likelihood that mismatches will develop. We explore the influence of three key characteristics of mutualism: 1) intimacy, 2) seasonality and duration, and 3) obligacy and specificity. We predict that the following characteristics of mutualism may increase the likelihood of phenological mismatch: 1) a non-symbiotic life history in which co-dispersal is absent; 2) brief, seasonal interactions; and 3) facultative, generalized interactions. We then review the limited available data in light of our a priori predictions and point to mutualisms that are more and less likely to be at risk of becoming phenologically mismatched, emphasizing the need for research on mutualisms other than plant–pollinator interactions. Future studies should explicitly focus on mutualism characteristics to determine whether and how changing phenologies will affect mutualistic interactions.

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