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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2016

Proximate causes of avian protandry differ between subspecies with contrasting migration challenges

Schmaljohann, Heiko; Meier, Christoph; Arlt, Debora; Bairlein, Franz; Oosten, Herman van; Morbey, Yolanda E.; Åkesson, Susanne; Buchmann, Martin; Chernetsov, Nikita; Pärt, Tomas


In many migratory birds, males precede females during migration and arrival at the breeding sites. Three proximate mechanisms are proposed to explain this phenomenon of protandry: males 1) winter closer to breeding sites, 2) start spring migration earlier, and/or 3) migrate faster than females. So far, the relative contribution of these mechanisms to protandry is unknown. The present study investigated the importance of each of the 3 proximate mechanisms of protandry for a songbird migrant wintering in Africa, the northern wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe). Two subspecies co-occur in Europe on migration, of which the leucorhoa northern wheatears breeding from Iceland to Canada have to cross the North Atlantic, whereas the nominate form breeding in Europe does not face any significant sea barrier. We show that the leucorhoa subspecies had a significantly higher degree of protandry at stopover sites across Europe than the oenanthe subspecies (-6 vs. -2 days). Leucorhoa northern wheatear's higher degree of protandry was associated with a larger age effect, in which old males preceded young males, and greater sex-specific differences in wing shape and refueling yielding higher migration speeds in males than females. In oenanthe northern wheatears, light-level geolocators revealed that males did not winter closer to the breeding sites or migrate faster than females, but initiated spring migration earlier. Our results demonstrate that the significance of the mechanisms causing protandry can differ between related taxa and highlight the importance of the advancement in male arrival date with age as a potential factor shaping the degree of protandry.

Published in

Behavioral Ecology
2016, volume: 27, number: 1, pages: 321-331

Authors' information

Schmaljohann, Heiko
Institute of Avian Research
Meier, Christoph
Swiss Ornithological Institute
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Ecology
Bairlein, Franz
Institute of Avian Research
Oosten, Herman van
Biosphere Science Foundation
Morbey, Yolanda E.
University of Western Ontario
Åkesson, Susanne
Lund University
Buchmann, Martin
Chernetsov, Nikita
Zoological Institute of Russian Academy of Sciences
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Ecology

UKÄ Subject classification

Behavioral Sciences Biology
Evolutionary Biology

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