Bergmann's rule is followed at multiple stages of postembryonic development in a long-distance migratory songbird


Bergmann’s rule is a well-established, ecogeographical principle that states that body size varies positively with latitude, reflecting the thermoregulatory benefits of larger bodies as temperatures decline. However, this principle does not seem to easily apply to migratory species that are able to avoid the extreme temperatures during winter at higher latitudes. Further, little is known about the ontogeny of this relationship across life stages or how it is influenced by ongoing global climate change. To address these knowledge gaps, we assessed the contemporary relationship between latitude and body size in a long-distance migratory species, the prothonotary warbler (Protonotaria citrea) across life stages (egg to adult) on their breeding grounds. We also measured historic eggs (1865-1961) to assess if the relationship between latitude and size during this life stage has changed over time. In accordance with Bergmann’s rule, we found a positive relationship between latitude and body mass during all post-embryonic life stages, from early nestling stage through adulthood. We observed this same predicted pattern with historic eggs, but contemporary eggs exhibited the reverse (negative) relationship. We suggest that these results indicate a genetic component to this pattern and speculate that selection for larger body size in altricial nestlings as latitude increases may possibly drive the pattern in migratory species as even rare extreme cold weather events may cause mortality during early life stages. Furthermore, the opposite relationships observed in eggs, dependent on time period, may be related to the rapidly warming environments of higher latitudes that is associated with climate change. Although it is unclear what mechanism(s) would allow for this recent reversal in eggs (but still allow for its maintenance in later life stages). This evidence of a reversal suggests that anthropogenic climate change may be in the process of altering one of the longest-standing principles in ecology.

Publication Title

Ecology and Evolution