Drought-induced Suppression of Female Fecundity in a Capital Breeder.Sci Rep. 2019 10 29; 9(1):15499.SR
Human-induced global climate change is exerting increasingly strong selective pressures on a myriad of fitness traits that affect organisms. These traits, in turn, are influenced by a variety of environmental parameters such as temperature and precipitation, particularly in ectothermic taxa such as amphibians and reptiles. Over the past several decades, severe and prolonged episodes of drought are becoming commonplace throughout North America. Documentation of responses to this environmental crisis, however, is often incomplete, particularly in cryptic species. Here, we investigated reproduction in a population of pitviper snakes (copperhead, Agkistrodon contortrix), a live-bearing capital breeder. This population experienced a severe drought from 2012 through 2016. We tested whether declines in number of progeny were linked to this drought. Decline in total number offspring was significant, but offspring length and mass were unaffected. Reproductive output was positively impacted by precipitation and negatively impacted by high temperatures. We hypothesized that severe declines of prey species (e.g., cicada, amphibians, and small mammals) reduced energy acquisition during drought, negatively impacting reproductive output of the snakes. Support for this view was found using the periodical cicada (Magicicada spp.) as a proxy for prey availability. Various climate simulations, including our own qualitative analysis, predict that drought events will continue unabated throughout the geographic distribution of copperheads which suggests that long-term monitoring of populations are needed to better understand geographic variation in drought resilience and cascading impacts of drought phenomena on ecosystem function.