The Pacific as the world’s greatest theater of bird migration: Extreme flights spark questions about physiological capabilities, behavior, and the evolution of migratory pathways

Authors: Theunis Piersma, Robert E. Gill Jr., Daniel R. Ruthrauff, Christopher G. Guglielmo, Jesse R. Conklin, and Colleen M. Handel

Year: 2022

Publication: Ornithology

Publication Link:

Keywords: atmosphere, climate change, comparative biology, cognition, conservation, evolution, phylogeography, shorebirds

Abstract: The Pacific Basin, by virtue of its vastness and its complex aeroscape, provides unique opportunities to address
questions about the behavioral and physiological capabilities and mechanisms through which birds can complete
spectacular flights. No longer is the Pacific seen just as a formidable barrier between terrestrial habitats in the north
and the south, but rather as a gateway for specialized species, such as shorebirds, to make a living on hemispherically
distributed seasonal resources. This recent change in perspective is dramatic, and the research that underpins it has
presented new opportunities to learn about phenomena that often challenge a sense of normal. Ancient Polynesians
were aware of the seasonal passage of shorebirds and other landbirds over the Pacific Ocean, incorporating these
observations into their navigational “tool kit” as they explored and colonized the Pacific. Some ten centuries later,
systematic visual observations and tracking technology have revealed much about movement of these shorebirds,
especially the enormity of their individual nonstop flights. This invites a broad suite of questions, often requiring
comparative studies with bird migration across other ocean basins, or across continents. For example, how do birds
manage many days of nonstop exercise apparently without sleep? What mechanisms explain birds acting as if they
possess a Global Positioning System? How do such extreme migrations evolve? Through advances in both theory and
tracking technology, biologists are poised to greatly expand the horizons of movement ecology as we know it. In this
integrative review, we present a series of intriguing questions about trans-Pacific migrant shorebirds and summarize
recent advances in knowledge about migratory behavior operating at temporal scales ranging from immediate
decisions during a single flight, to adaptive learning throughout a lifetime, to evolutionary development of migratory
pathways. Recent advances in this realm should stimulate future research across the globe and across a broad array
of disciplines.

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