Journal of Ornithology

, 148:219 | Cite as

Adaptation and evolution of photoperiod response systems in birds

  • Scott A. MacDougall-ShackletonEmail author
  • Thomas P. Hahn


The reproductive cycle of most birds is driven by the annual change in photoperiod, with birds cycling between the physiological states of photosensitivity, photostimulation and photorefractoriness. Comparative studies show that variation in breeding schedules is often correlated with variation in photoperiod response systems. We caution, however, that before adaptive specialization of photoperiod response systems can be concluded, the effects of conditional plasticity and phylogenetic history need to be considered. Conditional plasticity can result in birds with identical response systems displaying different breeding schedules at different latitudes. Consideration of phylogeny can reveal whether parameters of response systems are derived adaptations or ancestral traits. Comparative data on photorefractoriness suggests that one criterion for absolute photorefractoriness—spontaneous regression of the gonads on constant long days—is ancestral in the songbirds. Only four species lack this form of photorefractoriness and all of them are opportunistic breeders. A second criterion for absolute photorefractoriness is insensitivity to even 24 h light when birds are refractory. In contrast to spontaneous regression of the gonads, the distribution of this second criterion across species does not support an adaptive hypothesis. In cardueline finches, a lack of photorefractoriness by this second criterion is widespread and is present even among strictly seasonal breeders. Further exploration of the evolution and adaptation of photoperiod responses will require measuring the response of each species to a range of photoperiods and interpreting results within a phylogenetic context.


Photoperiodism Reproduction Seasonality 



Our research programs have been supported by NSF (USA) and NSERC (Canada).


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Copyright information

© Dt. Ornithologen-Gesellschaft e.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Scott A. MacDougall-Shackleton
    • 1
    Email author
  • Thomas P. Hahn
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of Western OntarioLondonCanada
  2. 2.Section of Neurobiology, Physiology and BehaviorUniversity of California-DavisDavisUSA

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