El Niño-Southern Oscillation Is Linked to Decreased Energetic Condition in Long-Distance Migrants

June 6, 2014 by Emily Cohen

Predicting how migratory animals respond to changing climatic conditions requires knowledge of how climatic events affect each phase of the annual cycle and how those effects carry-over to subsequent phases. We utilized a 17-year migration dataset to examine how El Niño-Southern Oscillation climatic events in geographically different regions of the Western hemisphere carry-over to impact the stopover biology of several intercontinental migratory bird species.

We found that migratory birds that over-wintered in South America experienced significantly drier environments during El Niño years, as reflected by reduced Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) values, and arrived at stopover sites in reduced energetic condition during spring migration. During El Niño years migrants were also more likely to stopover immediately along the northern Gulf coast of the southeastern U.S. after crossing the Gulf of Mexico in small suboptimal forest patches where food resources are lower and migrant density often greater than larger more contiguous forests further inland.

In contrast, NDVI values did not differ between El Niño and La Niña years in Caribbean-Central America, and we found no difference in energetic condition or use of coastal habitats for migrants en route from Caribbean-Central America wintering areas. Birds over-wintering in both regions had consistent median arrival dates along the northern Gulf coast, suggesting that there is a strong drive for birds to maintain their time program regardless of their overall condition.

We provide strong evidence that not only is the stopover biology of migratory landbirds influenced by events during the previous phase of their life-cycle, but where migratory birds over-winter determines how vulnerable they are to global climatic cycles. Increased frequency and intensity of ENSO events over the coming decades, as predicted by climatic models, may disproportionately influence long-distance migrants over-wintering in South America.

This article summarizes the information in this scientific paper:

El Niño-Southern Oscillation Is Linked to Decreased Energetic Condition in Long-Distance Migrants. Kristina L. Paxton, Emily B. Cohen, Eben H. Paxton, Zoltan Nemeth, Frank R. Moore. Published: May 02, 2014. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0095383

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