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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

February 5, 2022

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.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2022
Title 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
DOI 10.1093/ornithology/ukab086
Authors Theunis Piersma, Robert E. Gill, Daniel R. Ruthrauff, Christopher G. Guglielmo, Jesse R. Conklin, Colleen M. Handel
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ornithology
Series Number
Index ID 70228766
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Alaska Science Center Biology WTEB

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