Climate change and the mystery of the shrinking sheep

July 2, 2009
Climate change and the mystery of the shrinking sheep
Researchers analysed body size data for Soay sheep over a 24 year period

(PhysOrg.com) -- Milder winters are causing Scotland's wild breed of Soay sheep to get smaller, despite the evolutionary benefits of possessing a large body, according to new research due to be published in this week's Science Express (2 July).

The new study provides evidence for as the cause of the mysterious decrease in the size of wild sheep on the Scottish island of Hirta, first reported by scientists in 2007. The researchers believe that, due to climate change, survival conditions on Hirta are becoming less challenging, which means slower-growing, smaller sheep are more likely to survive the winters than they once were. This, together with newly-discovered so-called 'young mum effect' whereby young ewes produce smaller offspring, explains why the average size of sheep on the island is decreasing.

Classical evolutionary theory suggests that over time the average size of wild sheep increases, because larger animals tend to be more likely to survive and reproduce than smaller ones, and offspring tend to resemble their parents. However, among the Soay sheep of Hirta, a remote Scottish island in the St Kilda archipelago, average has decreased by approximately 5% over the last 24 years.

The research team analysed body size and life history data, which records the timing of key milestones throughout an individual sheep's life, for Soays on Hirta over this 24 year period. They found that sheep on the island are not growing as quickly as they once did, and that smaller sheep are more likely to survive into adulthood. This is bringing down the average size of sheep in the population over all.

In the past, the harsh Hirta island winters meant only the biggest, strongest Soays survived

Professor Coulson suggests that this is because shorter, milder winters, caused by global climate change, mean that lambs do not need to put on as much as weight in the first months of life to survive to their first birthday as they did when winters were colder.

He explains: "In the past, only the big, healthy sheep and large lambs that had piled on weight in their first summer could survive the harsh winters on Hirta. But now, due to climate change, grass for food is available for more months of the year, and survival conditions are not so challenging - even the slower growing sheep have a chance of making it, and this means smaller individuals are becoming increasingly prevalent in the population."

Their results suggest that the decrease in average body size seen in Hirta's sheep is primarily an ecological response to environmental changes over the last 25 years; evolutionary change has contributed relatively little.

In addition, the research team also discovered that the age at which a female sheep gives birth affects the size of her offspring. They realised that young Soay ewes are physically unable to produce that are as big as they themselves were at birth. This 'young-mum' effect had not been incorporated into previous analyses of natural selection, which explains in part why the sheep of Hirta are defying biologists' expectations.

"The young mum effect explains why Soay have not been getting bigger, as we expected them to," concludes Professor Coulson, "But it is not enough to explain why they're shrinking. We believe that this is down to climate change. These two factors are combining to override what we would expect through natural selection."

More information: 'The Dynamics of Phenotypic Change and the Shrinking Sheep of St. Kilda', Science Express, Thursday 2 July, 2009.

Source: Imperial College London (news : web)

Explore further: Bluetongue jumps from cattle to sheep

Related Stories

Farmers can spot lame sheep, but fail to prevent footrot spread

October 14, 2008

Sheep farmers are highly able to spot even mildly lame sheep, but many do not take steps to prevent the spread of lameness in their flocks by catching and treating these animals. A study in the open access journal BMC Veterinary ...

Counting sheep in climate change predictions

May 29, 2009

Climate change can have devastating effects on endangered species, but new mathematical models may be able to aid conservation of a population of bighorn sheep.

Recommended for you

Research advances on transplant ward pathogen

August 28, 2015

The fungus Cryptococcus causes meningitis, a brain disease that kills about 1 million people each year—mainly those with impaired immune systems due to AIDS, cancer treatment or an organ transplant. It's difficult to treat ...

Genomes uncover life's early history

August 24, 2015

A University of Manchester scientist is part of a team which has carried out one of the biggest ever analyses of genomes on life of all forms.

Rare nautilus sighted for the first time in three decades

August 25, 2015

In early August, biologist Peter Ward returned from the South Pacific with news that he encountered an old friend, one he hadn't seen in over three decades. The University of Washington professor had seen what he considers ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.