Jennifer A. Gill, José A. Alves, William J. Sutherland, Graham F. Appleton, Peter M. Potts and Tómas G. Gunnarsson. 2013. “Why is timing of bird migration advancing when individuals are not?” Proc. B. Vol. 281, no. 1774.
Phenological responses have been used as one of the major indicators of climate change. The timing of flowering and fruiting, the return of migrant birds and insects from winter habitats are easily and often measured, and records going back decades or centuries sometimes exist. Most importantly, shifts in phenological indicators are some of the strongest connections between rising temperatures and biological and ecological responses (for example). There is plenty of evidence, for example, that some migrant bird species are returning to their breeding grounds earlier than ever. These migratory birds may be responding (via migration timing) to warming temperatures in several ways: there may be plasticity or flexibility in individual timing of migration which allows them to respond to changing temperature cues; or species may also show adaptation via changes in the frequency of individuals with different migratory timings (microevolution). In cases where migratory species are responding to climate change, distinguishing the mechanisms allowing them to do so is surprisingly hard. Early arrival of migratory bird species is often explained as being due to individual plasticity or flexibility in “choosing” the date of migration, but the majority of studies of this phenomenon include little or no information about individual behaviour, only changes in the mean date of arrival for the entire population.
For this reason, Gill et al. looked at individual, rather than average population, arrival dates for Icelandic black-tailed godwits in south Iceland. Icelandic black-tailed godwits (“godwits” for the sake of brevity) have shown significant advances in the last 20 years in the timing of their spring arrival to the shores of Iceland, and these advances appear to relate to increasing temperatures. The population has also been banded such that 1-2% can be individually identified and tracked throughout their migratory range. Although only adults (of unknown age) were banded at the start of the experiment in 1999, recently chicks have also been banded and released and so a wide range of demographic classes are included with the banded birds.
|From Gill et al. 2013.|
|From Gill et al. (2013)|
These results make some predictions about which populations of migratory birds might have the most ability to respond to warming climate - most likely those with shorter migratory distances, shorter times to reproduction and shorter-lifespans (hence decreasing the lag-time required for the population to catch up to temperature). It may also have relevance for other non-bird species that also rely on careful timing between phenology and temperature. Correspondingly, it suggests limitations - if individual behaviour is so inflexible and constrained, our hopes that some species may respond to climate change with behavioural changes seem far to simplistic.