Avian migration: Temporal multitasking and a case study of melatonin cycles in waders

Barbara Helm, Eberhard Gwinner, Anita Koolhaas, Phil Battley, Ingrid Schwabl, Anne Dekinga, Theunis Piersma

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)


Timing “in the real world” must cope with the temporal complexity of natural environments. Extreme examples for the resultant “multitasking” are migratory birds, which precisely time movements to remote areas. New field technologies highlight temporal accuracy, while captivity studies emphasize underlying programs and plasticity of schedules. After reviewing these findings, we focus on waders, which undertake spectacular long-distance migrations, have robust circannual clocks, and cope with diel, tidal, and polar environments. To explore features that may facilitate such multitasking, we speculated that melatonin amplitudes are low and damped during seasons when entrainment to subtle Zeitgebers occurs. We measured melatonin profiles under European daylength in two species with different ecologies and found low-amplitude melatonin cycles that changed over the year. Annual patterns neither fully supported our hypothesis, nor simply reflected daylight availability. While migratory birds are inspiring models for chronobiology, mechanistic understanding of their multitasking is still poor.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)457-479
Number of pages23
JournalProgress in brain research
Publication statusPublished - 2012
Externally publishedYes

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