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Fluctuations in annual climatic extremes are associated with reproductive variation in resident mountain chickadees.
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Mounting evidence suggests that we are experiencing rapidly accelerating global climate change. Understanding how climate change may affect life is critical to identifying species and populations that are vulnerable. Most current research focuses on investigating how organisms may respond to gradual warming, but another effect of climate change is extreme annual variation in precipitation associated with alternations between drought and unusually heavy precipitation, like that exhibited in the western regions of North America. Understanding climate change effects on animal reproductive behaviour is especially important, because it directly impacts population persistence. Here, we present data on reproduction in nest-box breeding, resident mountain chickadees inhabiting high and low elevations in the Sierra Nevada across 5 years. These 5 years of data represent the full range of climatic variation from the largest drought in five centuries to one of the heaviest snow years on record. There were significant differences in most reproductive characteristics associated with variation in climate. Both climate extremes were negatively associated with reproductive success at high and low elevations, but low-elevation chickadees had worse reproductive success in the largest drought year while high-elevation chickadees had worse reproductive success in the heaviest snow year. Considering that the frequency of extreme climate swings between drought and snow is predicted to increase, such swings may have negative effects on chickadee populations across the entire elevation gradient, as climatic extremes should favour different adaptations. Alternatively, it is possible that climate fluctuations might favour preserving genetic variation allowing for higher resilience. It is too early to make specific predictions regarding how increased frequency of extreme climate fluctuation may impact chickadees however, our data suggest that even the most common species may be susceptible.