Glaciation as a migratory switch

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Science Advances  20 Sep 2017:
Vol. 3, no. 9, e1603133
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1603133

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Migratory behavior in birds is evolutionarily plastic, but it is unclear how this behavior responded during glacial cycles. One view is that at glacial maxima, species simply shifted their breeding ranges south of glacial ice and remained migratory. To test this hypothesis, we constructed ecological niche models for breeding and wintering ranges of 56 species, finding that 70% of currently long-distance North American migrant species likely lacked suitable breeding habitat in North America at the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), and we hypothesized that they reverted to the ancestral state of being tropical sedentary residents. A smaller percentage of short-distance migrants (27%) experienced altered migratory behavior at the LGM, although the ranges of all species were shifted southward, as traditionally envisioned. We suggest that many species oscillate between sedentary and migratory strategies with each glacial cycle acting as an adaptive switch. Thus, range shifts occur more frequently than speciation events and are inadequately depicted by phylogenetic reconstructions. We suggest that reconstructing the evolutionary history of traits, such as migratory behavior, is best served by using ranges at glacial maxima. A phylogeny of warblers strongly predicted LGM, but not present distributions, and suggested that migration was re-expressed from three tropical centers of warbler diversity. Understanding of evolutionary history will be improved when reconstructions use distributions relevant to the time of character transitions.

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