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What do insights from the past tell us about the future?

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Timing of breeding is a life-history trait with major fitness consequences, and thus natural selection on timing will lead to local adaptation in contrasting landscapes as well as to directional selection when the environment is changing.
 
Timing is selected through a cascade of physiological processes that precedes breeding and needs to be deciphered if we want to understand how adaptation to an (changing) environment works. We study two Corsican populations of blue tits that, although they only breed 25 kilometres apart, show up to a one-month difference in breeding time. This population difference has been well studied: it is an adaptive response to the local seasonal variations in food abundance and the population difference is repeatable under ‘common garden’ conditions, revealing a genetic component. However, what is lacking is knowledge on how the underlying physiological mechanisms adaptively respond to the environmental variability. This knowledge is essential as it may lead the way in how current populations will respond to selection due to climate change.  
 
Eggs from these two populations are brought in and we study the hand-reared offspring in a world-ranking facility of 36 climatized aviaries and compare their sensitivities to photoperiod and temperatures, two major environmental cues. We use multiple behavioural (nest-building, egg-laying) and physiological measurements (hormone levels, gonadal sizes). Furthermore, a future goal is to breed hybrids from the two populations to further unravel the underlying genetic architecture of differences in the physiological mechanisms.
 
Finally, we do detailed physiological measurements on free-living Dutch blue tits from a long-term (1955-present) pedigreed population that is currently under selection for earlier laying due to global warming. This way, we use the knowledge acquired from highly contrasted populations that have succeeded in adapting their breeding phenology to environmental change to further our understanding of the micro-evolutionary, physiological, adaptations needed for populations to face climate change.
 

Funding: 

NWO-VENI grant