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Thermal constraints on embryonic development as a proximate cause for elevational range limits in two Mediterranean lacertid lizards

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Local adaptation and range restrictions in alpine environments are central topics in biogeographic research with important implications for predicting impacts of global climate change on organisms. Temperature is strongly coupled to elevation and greatly affects life history traits of oviparous reptiles in mountain environments. Thus, species may encounter barriers for expanding their ranges if they are unable to adapt to the changing thermal conditions encountered along elevational gradients. We sought to determine whether thermal requirements for embryonic development provide a plausible explanation for elevational range limits of two species of lacertid lizards that have complementary elevational ranges in a Mediterranean mountain range (Psammodromus algirus is found at elevations below 1600 m and Iberolacerta cyreni is found at elevations above 1600 m). We combined experimental incubation of eggs in the laboratory with modelled estimates of nest temperature in the field. In both species, increasing temperature accelerated development and produced earlier hatching dates. The species associated with warmer environments (P. algirus) experienced an excessive hatching delay under the lowest incubation temperature. Moreover, newborns from eggs incubated at low temperatures showed poor body condition and very slow rates of postnatal growth. In contrast, eggs of the strictly alpine species I. cyreni exhibited shorter incubation periods than P. algirus that allowed hatching before the end of the active season even under low incubation temperatures. This was countered by lower reproductive success at higher temperatures, due to lower hatching rates and higher incidence of abnormal phenotypes. Elevational range limits of both species coincided well with threshold temperatures for deleterious effects on embryonic development. We suggest that incubation temperature is a major ecophysiological factor determining the elevational range limits of these oviparous lizards with predictable consequences for mountain distributions under future warmer climates.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: December 1, 2011

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