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This sentence is from a transcript of a podcast:

The researchers say that even mammals that breed year round—which should offer protection against seasonal shifts—may still feel the impact of climate change.

I don't understand what the word "which" means here. Does it refer to the "mammals"? If it does, I am confused by the whole sentence — what's the connection between the middle part of the sentence and the rest?

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up vote 7 down vote accepted

The which in this sentence refers to breeding year round, not the mammals per se. In other words:

Breeding year round should protect mammals from seasonal shifts. However, despite this protection, these mammals may still feel the impact of climate change.

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It refers to [the fact] that they breed year round. The word which can be used to refer to an entire sentence, to a specific noun phrase, to any other part of a sentence, or even to a concept that isn't explicitly mentioned. Several other pronouns can do the same:

Christians refused to worship the Emperor. That was not to the liking of the Roman government.

Here that refers to the entire previous sentence.

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It's not grammatically correct, although since it's from a verbal transcript I'm inclined to cut the speaker some slack. (I believe this is an example of a dangling modifier.)

"Which" refers back to the year-round breeding cycle of said mammals. It might be clearer if we move the object mammals to the other side of the parenthetical phrase:

The researchers say that even breeding year round—which should offer protection against seasonal shifts—may not protect mammals from the impact of climate change.

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I think that as a verbal parenthetical remark, it's fine, but that in an essay, it would have been better written and more readable without the parenthetical remark. – Warren P Jun 17 '11 at 0:57
It is indeed grammatically correct. It is formally ambiguous (though probably not so in practice). – Colin Fine Jun 17 '11 at 11:25

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