Physiological and behavioral responses of migrants to environmental cues

Marilyn Ramenofsky, Jamie M Cornelius, Barbara Helm

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45 Citations (Scopus)


Migrant species express wide varieties of movement strategies that closely mirror patterns of resource distribution. Resources can vary predictably in space and time (e.g., seasonal peaks of productivity in temperate regions) or can be unpredictable in one or both dimensions. Evolution of migration strategies and the underlying physiological and behavioral mechanisms are therefore diverse, but similarities have been noted. To understand how migrants respond to environmental cues, we focus on species that represent extremes along a continuum between obligate versus facultative migratory behavior and address the physiological mechanisms regulating these movements. Obligate migrants, which travel on highly predictable schedules, generally rely on the annual change in daylength and circannual rhythms to initiate the vernal and, where known, the fall phases of migration. Facultative species may show similar seasonal preparations in cases where resources are temporally predictable, but appear to rely more heavily upon local supplementary cues in the environment to initiate migrations. In general, the physiological response mechanisms to environmental cues that coordinate migratory movements include perception of the environmental cue and transduction to neuroendocrine and endocrine systems. Clearly, there are huge gaps in our knowledge in this area, but published studies of each of the migratory types suggest striking parallels. Based on a comparison of the physiological aspects of the divergent migratory patterns, we emphasize that the migratory types are not completely distinct. Instead, the differences of migration patterns and responsiveness to cues reflect differences in the relative contributions of common physiological mechanisms that underly the control of movements. A more complete understanding of migratory physiology requires continued descriptive studies, particularly in a greater diversity of model systems, in addition to experimental methods that utilize innovative tracking technology as well as behavioral and physiological innovations to draw attention to different levels of organization. Comprehending the physiological mechanisms underlying migratory patterns will be vital for knowing how migrants respond to current environmental cues and anticipating their reactions to future conditions.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)S181-S191
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Ornithology
Issue numberSuppl. 1
Publication statusPublished - Aug-2012
Externally publishedYes

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