Limited potential for bird migration to disperse plants to cooler latitudes

Authors: Juan P. González-Varo, Beatriz Rumeu, Jörg Albrecht, Juan M. Arroyo, Rafael S. Bueno,
Tamara Burgos, Luís P. da Silva, Gema Escribano-Ávila, Nina Farwig, Daniel García, Ruben H. Heleno, Juan C. Illera, Pedro Jordano, Przemysław Kurek, Benno I. Simmons, Emilio Virgós, William J. Sutherland & Anna Traveset

Year: 2021

Publication: Nature

Publication Link:


Climate change is forcing the redistribution of life on Earth at an unprecedented
velocity1,2. Migratory birds are thought to help plants to track climate change through
long-distance seed dispersal3,4. However, seeds may be consistently dispersed
towards cooler or warmer latitudes depending on whether the fruiting period of a
plant species coincides with northward or southward migrations. Here we assess the
potential of plant communities to keep pace with climate change through
long-distance seed dispersal by migratory birds. To do so, we combine phenological
and migration information with data on 949 seed-dispersal interactions between
46 bird and 81 plant species from 13 woodland communities across Europe. Most of
the plant species (86%) in these communities are dispersed by birds migrating south,
whereas only 35% are dispersed by birds migrating north; the latter subset is
phylogenetically clustered in lineages that have fruiting periods that overlap with the
spring migration. Moreover, the majority of this critical dispersal service northwards
is provided by only a few Palaearctic migrant species. The potential of migratory birds
to assist a small, non-random sample of plants to track climate change latitudinally is
expected to strongly influence the formation of novel plant communities, and thus
affect their ecosystem functions and community assembly at higher trophic levels.

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