Heterogeneous changes in avian body size across and within species


Contemporary climate change has been linked to widespread changes in phenology and in the geographic distribution of species. Based on Bergmann’s rule, body sizes of birds have been predicted to decline as global temperatures increase. We examined changes in body size of 20 resident and short-distance migrant passerine species in eastern North America between 1980 and 2012, and how changes in resident species related to annual mean summer and mean winter temperatures. We found that wing length generally increased and that fat-free mass did not change significantly. Fat score, a measure of body condition, declined over time. However, changes in wing length, fat-free mass, and fat score all showed significant variation across species. For resident species, increasing mean summer temperatures were generally associated with shorter wing lengths, but were not related to fat-free mass or fat score. Increasing mean winter temperatures were associated with reduced fat-free mass but not with wing length or fat score. Temperature effects did not vary significantly across species for any of the three measures. Across resident species, the magnitude of body size change over time was not related to the influence of mean winter or mean summer temperatures, and may have been driven by other factors. Our findings contrast with those from a study at a nearby bird banding station, in which widespread decreases in wing length and fat-free mass were observed. Our results demonstrate that populations of the same species can exhibit opposing changes in body size over short geographic distances (<250 km). We conclude that changes in body size are heterogeneous over short time scales and can vary across and within species over short distances. Continued advances in understanding how body size changes relate to climate change must embrace this inherent complexity and consider alternative hypotheses.

Publication Title

Journal of Ornithology