Pre-laying climatic cues can time reproduction to optimally match offspring hatching and ice conditions in an Arctic marine bird

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Individuals breeding in seasonal environments are under strong selection to time reproduction to match offspring demand and the quality of the post-natal environment. Timing requires both the ability to accurately interpret the appropriate environmental cues, and the flexibility to respond to inter-annual variation in these cues. Determining which cues are linked to reproductive timing, what these cues are predicting and understanding the fitness consequences of variation in timing, is therefore of paramount interest to evolutionary and applied ecologists, especially in the face of global climate change. We investigated inter-annual relationships between climatic variation and the timing of reproduction in Canada’s largest breeding population of Arctic common eiders (Somateria mollissima) in East Bay, Nunavut. Warmer spring temperatures predicted both earlier mean annual laying dates and the earlier ice-free conditions required by ducklings for post-natal growth. Warmer springs had higher variation in this temperature cue, and the population laying distribution became increasingly positively-skewed in warmer summers, potentially indicating that more low-quality females had the opportunity to commence laying in warmer years. Females that timed laying to match duckling hatching just prior to fully ice-free conditions obtained the highest duckling survival probability. Inter-annual data on repeated breeding attempts revealed that the individuals examined show a similar degree of laying flexibility in response to climatic variation; however, there was significant individual variation in the absolute timing of laying within an average year. This work sheds light on how reproductive timing is related to and influenced by variation in local climate and provides vital information on how climate-related variation in reproductive timing influence a fitness measure in an Arctic species. Results are especially relevant to future work in polar environments given that global climatic changes are predicted to be most intense at high latitudes.