Elevation-related differences in annual survival of adult food-caching mountain chickadees are consistent with natural selection on spatial cognition
Benedict, L. M. | Pitera, A. M. | Branch, C. L. | Kozlovsky, D. Y. | Sonnenberg, B. R. | Bridge, E. S. | Pravosudov, V. V.
Animals inhabiting montane gradients experience varying winter climates that may result in differential selection on survival-related traits. Higher elevations in temperate climates are characterized by harsher winters with greater and longer-lasting snow cover compared to lower elevations, potentially leading to stronger selection for traits that improve fitness under these harsher conditions. For food-caching mountain chickadees, Poecile gambeli, inhabiting harsh high elevation environments, individual variation in spatial cognitive abilities related to cache retrieval is associated with significant differences in overwinter survival. Compared to lower elevations, stronger predicted selection on traits needed for overwinter survival at higher elevations can be expected to result in higher adult annual survival despite harsher environmental conditions, indicating that individuals that survive their first winter are better suited to survive similar subsequent selection events. Here, we used a Bayesian hierarchical Cormack-Jolly-Seber (CJS) model to estimate and compare survival of adult mountain chickadees at higher and lower elevations over 3 years. We showed that adult survival was consistently higher at higher elevations despite much harsher environmental conditions, supporting our hypothesis that selection on overwinter survival-related traits (such as spatial cognition) is stronger at our high elevation study area than at lower elevations. SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT: Understanding how environmental conditions are associated with different selection strengths on survival-related traits is an important question in behavioral ecology. Directly estimating differences in strength of selection is daunting, but comparing survival between environments may provide an alternative method. We tested for differences in adult survival in a resident food-caching species at higher and lower elevations varying in winter climate severity. These birds rely on food caches for winter survival, and juvenile birds with better spatial cognition (needed for cache retrieval) have higher survival during their first year at higher harsher elevations. Here, we report higher adult survival at higher elevations compared to lower elevations, despite much harsher winter environment. Such findings support our hypothesis for stronger selection in harsher winter conditions because individuals that survive their first year under stronger selection are better suited to survive subsequent selection events.Show more [+] Less [-]