Heritability of the timing of autumn migration in a natural bird population

Proc Biol Sci. 2001 May 7;268(1470):953-9. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2001.1602.


In recent decades, global temperature has increased at an unprecedented rate. This has been causing rapid environmental shifts that have altered the selective regimes determining the annual organization of birds. In order to assess the potential for adaptive evolution in the timing of autumn migration, we estimated heritabilities of the onset of migratory activity in a southern German blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) population. Heritabilities (h2=0.34-0.45) and coefficients of additive genetic variation (CV(A)=4.7-5.7) were significant and consistent when estimated by different methods, irrespective of whether they were derived from birds hatched in the wild or bred in captivity. In an artificial selection experiment, we selected for later onset of migratory activity, simulating expected natural selection on this trait. We obtained a significant delay in the mean onset of migratory activity by more than one week after two generations of selection. Realized heritability (h2=0.55) was in agreement with expected heritability in the cohort that the selection line was derived from. Our results suggest that evolutionary changes in the timing of autumn migration may take place over a very short time period and will most probably be unconstrained by the lack of additive genetic variation.

MeSH terms

  • Acclimatization
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal*
  • Climate
  • Female
  • Genetic Variation*
  • Germany
  • Greenhouse Effect
  • Male
  • Models, Biological
  • Models, Genetic
  • Regression Analysis
  • Seasons*
  • Songbirds / genetics
  • Songbirds / physiology*