Journal of Ornithology

, Volume 147, Issue 2, pp 221–233 | Cite as

A framework for the study of genetic variation in migratory behaviour

  • Arie J. van NoordwijkEmail author
  • Francisco Pulido
  • Barbara Helm
  • Timothy Coppack
  • Julia Delingat
  • Hugh Dingle
  • Anders Hedenström
  • Henk van der Jeugd
  • Chiara Marchetti
  • Anna Nilsson
  • Javier Pérez-Tris


Evolutionary change results from selection acting on genetic variation. For migration to be successful, many different aspects of an animal’s physiology and behaviour need to function in a co-coordinated way. Changes in one migratory trait are therefore likely to be accompanied by changes in other migratory and life-history traits. At present, we have some knowledge of the pressures that operate at the various stages of migration, but we know very little about the extent of genetic variation in various aspects of the migratory syndrome. As a consequence, our ability to predict which species is capable of what kind of evolutionary change, and at which rate, is limited. Here, we review how our evolutionary understanding of migration may benefit from taking a quantitative-genetic approach and present a framework for studying the causes of phenotypic variation. We review past research, that has mainly studied single migratory traits in captive birds, and discuss how this work could be extended to study genetic variation in the wild and to account for genetic correlations and correlated selection. In the future, reaction-norm approaches may become very important, as they allow the study of genetic and environmental effects on phenotypic expression within a single framework, as well as of their interactions. We advocate making more use of repeated measurements on single individuals to study the causes of among-individual variation in the wild, as they are easier to obtain than data on relatives and can provide valuable information for identifying and selecting traits. This approach will be particularly informative if it involves systematic testing of individuals under different environmental conditions. We propose extending this research agenda by using optimality models to predict levels of variation and covariation among traits and constraints. This may help us to select traits in which we might expect genetic variation, and to identify the most informative environmental axes. We also recommend an expansion of the passerine model, as this model does not apply to birds, like geese, where cultural transmission of spatio-temporal information is an important determinant of migration patterns and their variation.


Individual variation Migration Migratory syndrome Migratory traits Quantitative genetics 



This paper resulted from a workshop entitled “Estimating genetic components in the migratory syndrome” held in Papenburg (Germany) in March 2004. The workshop was funded by the European Science Foundation programme “Optimality in Bird Migration.” We thank the ESF for financial support, Franz Bairlein for his help in organising the workshop, and all other participants of the workshop for the lively discussion.


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Copyright information

© Dt. Ornithologen-Gesellschaft e.V. 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  • Arie J. van Noordwijk
    • 1
    Email author
  • Francisco Pulido
    • 1
  • Barbara Helm
    • 2
  • Timothy Coppack
    • 3
  • Julia Delingat
    • 3
  • Hugh Dingle
    • 4
    • 5
  • Anders Hedenström
    • 6
  • Henk van der Jeugd
    • 7
  • Chiara Marchetti
    • 1
  • Anna Nilsson
    • 8
  • Javier Pérez-Tris
    • 8
  1. 1.Netherlands Institute of EcologyHeterenThe Netherlands
  2. 2.Max Planck Institute for OrnithologyAndechsGermany
  3. 3.Institute of Avian Research, “Vogelwarte Helgoland”WilhelmshavenGermany
  4. 4.Department of EntomologyUC DavisDavisUSA
  5. 5.School of Integrative BiologyUniversity of QueenslandBrisbaneAustralia
  6. 6.Department of Theoretical EcologyLund UniversityLundSweden
  7. 7.SOVON Dutch Centre for Field OrnithologyBeek-UbbergenThe Netherlands
  8. 8.Department of Animal EcologyLund UniversityLundSweden

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