While an obvious affect of climate change will be changes in the distributions or range sizes of species, more insidious and likely more consequential will be how species interactions are affected by changes in the timing of growth and reproduction. These changes in an organism's life cycle, or phenology, can create mismatches between an organism's need and resource availability or the readiness of coevolved partners -such as plants and pollinators.
In an 'Idea and Perspective' paper in Ecology Letters, Louie Yang and Volker Rudolf set out a new framework to examine the effects of phenological shifts on species interactions. They argue that one cannot understand or predict the fitness consequences of a phenology shift without knowing how interacting species' phenologies are also influenced by environmental changes. The consequences of phenological shifts are changes in fitness, and the question is: how would one go about assessing the fitness effects of phenological changes on interactions? This is where this paper really hits its stride. Yang and Rudolf set out a new conceptual framework for studying the fitness consequences of phenological shifts. They make the case that an experimental approach is required to test the three likely scenarios. The first is that there are no changes in phenology -that is, measuring the fitness levels of the two interacting species under stable conditions. Second, you induce an experimental shift in the timing of one of the species. For example, in a plant-herbivore interaction, germinate the plant earlier and when the herbivore normally has access to the plant, the plant will be older. What are the fitness changes associated with this shift? Finally, you can shift the timing of the other species relative to the first. In our example, the herbivore has access to younger plants and again are there fitness consequences?
Yang and Rudolf call the full combination of possible fitness effects, across a number of timing mismatches, 'the ontogeny-phenology landscape'. By mapping fitness changes across this ontogeny-phenology landscape, researchers can offer better predictions, on top of just changes in range size or habitat use, about the possible affects of climate change. The obvious question, and Yang and Rudolf acknowledge this, is how to extend two-species ontogeny-phenology to multi-species communities. Of course, extending two-species interactions to communities is a question that plagues most of community ecology, but I think the solution is that researchers who know their systems often have intuition about the major players, and thus those species where phenology shifts should have disproportionate effects on other species. Such species could be the place to start. Another strategy would be a food web type approach, where species are lumped into broader trophic groups and we ask how shifts in certain trophic groups affect other groups.
Regardless of how to extend this framework to multispecies assemblages, I see this paper as likely to be very influential. It gives researches a new focus and framework, where specific predictions about climate change can be made.
Yang, L., & Rudolf, V. (2010). Phenology, ontogeny and the effects of climate change on the timing of species interactions Ecology Letters, 13 (1), 1-10 DOI: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2009.01402.x