Travelling on a budget: predictions and ecological evidence for bottlenecks in the annual cycle of long-distance migrants

Deborah M. Buehler*, Theunis Piersma

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articleAcademicpeer-review

176 Citations (Scopus)
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Long-distance migration, and the study of the migrants who undertake these journeys, has fascinated generations of biologists. However, many aspects of the annual cycles of these migrants remain a mystery as do many of the driving forces behind the evolution and maintenance of the migrations themselves. In this article we discuss nutritional, energetic, temporal and disease-risk bottlenecks in the annual cycle of long-distance migrants, taking a sandpiper, the red knot Calidris canutus, as a focal species. Red knots have six recognized subspecies each with different migratory routes, well-known patterns of connectivity and contrasting annual cycles. The diversity of red knot annual cycles allows us to discuss the existence and the effects of bottlenecks in a comparative framework. We examine the evidence for bottlenecks focusing on the quality of breeding plumage and the timing of moult as indicators in the six subspecies. In terms of breeding plumage coloration, quality and timing of prealternate body moult (from non-breeding into breeding plumage), the longest migrating knot subspecies, Calidris canutus rogersi and Calidris canutus rufa, show the greatest impact of bottlenecking. The same is true in terms of prebasic body moult (from breeding into non-breeding plumage) which in case of both C. c. rogersi and C. c. rufa overlaps with southward migration and may even commence in the breeding grounds. To close our discussion of bottlenecks in long-distance migrants, we make predictions about how migrants might be impacted via physiological 'trade-offs' throughout the annual cycle, using investment in immune function as an example. We also predict how bottlenecks may affect the distribution of mortality throughout the annual cycle. We hope that this framework will be applicable to other species and types of migrants, thus expanding the comparative database for the future evaluation of seasonal selection pressures and the evolution of annual cycles in long-distance migrants. Furthermore, we hope that this synthesis of recent advancements in the knowledge of red knot annual cycles will prove useful in the ongoing attempts to model annual cycles in migratory birds.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)247-266
Number of pages20
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1490
Publication statusPublished - 27-Jan-2008


  • red knot
  • Calidris canutus
  • migration
  • annual cycle
  • plumage
  • moult

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