Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units Program: Virginia
Education, Research and Technical Assistance for Managing Our Natural Resources

Hunter, E.A., K.J. Loope, K.K. Drake, K. Hanley, D.N. Jones, Jr., K.T. Shoemaker, and D.C. Rostal. 2021. Warming conditions boost reproductive output for a northern gopher tortoise population. Endangered Species Research 46:215-226.


The effects of climate change on at-risk species will depend on how life history processes respond to climate and whether the seasonal timing of local climate changes overlap with species-specific windows of climate sensitivity. For long-lived, iteroparous species like gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus), reproductive processes are more likely to be climate-sensitive than adult survival. Our objective was to estimate the timing, magnitude, and direction of climate-driven effects on gopher tortoise reproductive output using a 25-year dataset collected in southeastern Georgia, USA, near the northern edge of the species’ range. We assessed the timing of climate effects on reproductive output (both probability of reproduction and clutch size) by fitting models with climate covariates (maximum temperature, precipitation, and temperature range) summarized at all possible time intervals (at one-month increments) within the 24-month period prior to the summer census date. We then fit a final model of reproductive output as a function of the identified climate variables and time windows using a Bayesian mixture model. Probability of reproduction was positively correlated with the prior year’s April-May maximum temperature, and clutch size was positively correlated with the prior year’s June maximum temperature. April-May and June maximum temperatures have increased over the past three decades at the study site, which likely led to an increase in clutch size of approximately 1 egg (15% increase over mean 6.5 eggs). However, the net effect of climate change on gopher tortoise population dynamics will depend on whether there are opposing or reinforcing climate responses for other demographic rates.