Tropical winter habitat drives natal dispersal of young migratory birds

Feb 18, 2008

A new study by scientists at the Migratory Bird Center at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo shows that the factors determining where birds settle and nest in the first breeding season depends on the habitat they used during their first winter in the tropics. The determining factor in where a bird settles for its first breeding season relative to its hatching site—also known as natal dispersal—was previously unknown.

By studying American redstarts, National Zoo scientists have shed light on the phenomenon that has important implications for rates of genetic differentiation. The study was published online in the Feb. 18 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Scientists looked at two distinct redstart habitats in Jamaica—one, a lush, food-rich habitat, and the other, a dry and harsher habitat. The study showed that birds that spent their first winter in the lush habitat left earlier for spring migration and traveled relatively short distances to breed. Birds that first wintered in the harsher habitat left later on migration and traveled a longer distance to breed.

The difference in migration distance between birds in these habitats led to birds from the lush habitat dispersing south of their hatch site and birds from the dry, harsh habitat dispersing north of their natal site.

Studying natal dispersal in migratory birds has previously presented a challenge to scientists. It is difficult to track small animal species across long distances as opposed to larger animals that can be fit with satellite collars.

Scientists Colin Studds, a doctoral candidate in the Program in Behavior, Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics at the University of Maryland (College Park), and Peter Marra, an ecologist at the Migratory Bird Center, investigated this phenomenon.

They compared a chemical marker in the feathers of birds spending their first winter in Jamaica to the feathers they grew one year later after their first breeding season. This marker—a stable isotope of hydrogen—revealed the approximate latitude in North America where birds grew their feathers. Hydrogen isotopes vary predictably with latitude, and birds store the signature of their local area in their bodies through their insect-rich diets. By sampling redstart feathers in Jamaica, the researchers were able to piece together the hatching and breeding latitudes of birds they could not otherwise track for long distances.

Natal dispersal is thought to be the main process affecting genetic mixing of bird populations. This study is first to show that conditions in tropical winter areas can influence natal dispersal patterns. The findings underscore the importance of developing conservation projects that take into account the annual cycle of a migratory bird.

Source: Smithsonian

Explore further: Free the seed: OSSI nurtures growing plants without patent barriers

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Plants with dormant seeds give rise to more species

Apr 18, 2014

Seeds that sprout as soon as they're planted may be good news for a garden. But wild plants need to be more careful. In the wild, a plant whose seeds sprouted at the first warm spell or rainy day would risk disaster. More ...

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

Apr 18, 2014

(Phys.org) —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Biologists help solve fungi mysteries

(Phys.org) —A new genetic analysis revealing the previously unknown biodiversity and distribution of thousands of fungi in North America might also reveal a previously underappreciated contributor to climate ...

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

(Phys.org) —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.