The lost generation hypothesis: Could climate change drive ectotherms into a developmental trap?

Hans Van Dyck, Dries Bonte, Rik Puls, Karl Gotthard, Dirk Maes

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    Climate warming affects the rate and timing of the development in ectothermic organisms. Short-living, ectothermic organisms (including many insects) showing thermal plasticity in life-cycle regulation could, for example, increase the number of generations per year under warmer conditions. However, changed phenology may challenge the way organisms in temperate climates deal with the available thermal time window at the end of summer. Although adaptive plasticity is widely assumed in multivoltine organisms, rapid environmental change could blur the relationship between the environmental cues that organisms use to make developmental decisions. Developmental traps are scenarios in which rapid environmental change triggers organisms to pursue maladaptive developmental pathways. This occurs because organisms must rely upon current environmental cues to predict future environmental conditions and corresponds to a novel case of ecological or evolutionary traps. Examples of introduced, invasive species are congruent with this hypothesis. Based on preliminary experiments, we argue that the dramatic declines of the Wall Brown (Lasiommata megera) in NW Europe may be an example of a developmental trap. This formerly widespread, bivoltine (or even multivoltine) butterfly has become a conundrum to conservationist biologists. A split-brood field experiment with L. megera indeed suggests issues with life-cycle regulation decisions at the end of summer. In areas where the species went extinct recently, 100% of the individuals developed directly into a third generation without larval diapause, whereas only 42.5% did so in the areas where the species still occurs. Under unfavourable autumn conditions, the attempted third generation will result in high mortality and eventually a lost or ‘suicidal’ third generation in this insect with non-overlapping, discrete generations. We discuss the idea of a developmental trap within an integrated framework for assessing the vulnerability of species to climate change.
    Original languageEnglish
    JournalOikos (København)
    Issue number1
    Pages (from-to)54-61
    Publication statusPublished - Jan-2015

    Thematic list

    • Climate
    • Insects

    EWI Biomedical sciences

    • B280-animal-ecology
    • B320-zoogeography

    Taxonomic list

    • butterflies (Lepidoptera)


    • biodiversity policy
    • Climate policy (inc. Biomass energy with carbon capture and storage)

    Geographic list

    • Flanders

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