Function and underlying mechanisms of seasonal colour moulting in mammals and birds: what keeps them changing in a warming world?

Marketa Zimova, Klaus Hackländer, Jeffrey M. Good, José Melo-Ferreira, Paulo Célio Alves, L. Scott Mills

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

102 Scopus citations


Animals that occupy temperate and polar regions have specialized traits that help them survive in harsh, highly seasonal environments. One particularly important adaptation is seasonal coat colour (SCC) moulting. Over 20 species of birds and mammals distributed across the northern hemisphere undergo complete, biannual colour change from brown in the summer to completely white in the winter. But as climate change decreases duration of snow cover, seasonally winter white species (including the snowshoe hare Lepus americanus, Arctic fox Vulpes lagopus and willow ptarmigan Lagopus lagopus) become highly contrasted against dark snowless backgrounds. The negative consequences of camouflage mismatch and adaptive potential is of high interest for conservation. Here we provide the first comprehensive review across birds and mammals of the adaptive value and mechanisms underpinning SCC moulting. We found that across species, the main function of SCC moults is seasonal camouflage against snow, and photoperiod is the main driver of the moult phenology. Next, although many underlying mechanisms remain unclear, mammalian species share similarities in some aspects of hair growth, neuroendocrine control, and the effects of intrinsic and extrinsic factors on moult phenology. The underlying basis of SCC moults in birds is less understood and differs from mammals in several aspects. Lastly, our synthesis suggests that due to limited plasticity in SCC moulting, evolutionary adaptation will be necessary to mediate future camouflage mismatch and a detailed understanding of the SCC moulting will be needed to manage populations effectively under climate change.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1478-1498
Number of pages21
JournalBiological Reviews
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 2018


  • Siberian hamster
  • arctic fox
  • camouflage mismatch
  • climate change
  • coat colour moult
  • hare
  • phenotypic mismatch
  • ptarmigan
  • seasonal adaptation
  • weasel


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