The consequences of warming for Antarctic long-lived organisms depend on their ability to survive changing patterns of climate and environmental variation. Among birds and mammals of different Antarctic regions, including emperor penguins, snow petrels, southern fulmars, Antarctic fur seals and Weddell seals, we found strong support for selection of life history traits that reduce interannual variation in fitness. These species maximise fitness by keeping a low inter-annual variance in the survival of adults and in their propensity to breed annually, which are the vital rates that influence most the variability in population growth rate (λ). All these species have been able to buffer these rates against the effects of recent climate-driven habitat changes except for Antarctic fur seals, in the Southwest Atlantic. In this region of the Southern Ocean, the rapid increase in ecosystem fluctuation, associated with climate variability observed since 1990, has limited and rendered less predictable the main fur seal food supply, Antarctic krill. This has increased the fitness costs of breeding for females, causing significant short-term changes in population structure through mortality and low breeding output. Changes occur now with a frequency higher than the mean female fur seal generation time, and therefore are likely to limit their adaptive response. Fur seals are more likely to rely on phenotypic plasticity to cope with short-term changes in order to maximize individual fitness. With more frequent extreme climatic events driving more frequent ecosystem fluctuation, the repercussions for life histories in many Antarctic birds and mammals are likely to increase, particularly at regional scales. In species with less flexible life histories that are more constrained by fluctuation in their critical habitats, like sea-ice, this may cause demographic changes, population compensation and changes in distribution, as already observed in penguin species living in the Antarctic Peninsula and adjacent islands.
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(Global Change Biology, in press)