Variation from an unknown source: Large inter-individual differences in migrating black-tailed godwits

Mo A. Verhoeven*, A. H.Jelle Loonstra, Nathan R. Senner, Alice D. McBride, Christiaan Both, Theunis Piersma

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journal/periodicalArticleScientificpeer-review

32 Citations (Scopus)


Variation in migratory behavior is the result of different individual strategies and fluctuations in individual performances. A first step toward understanding these differences in migratory behavior among individuals is, therefore, to assess the relative contributions of inter- and intra-individual differences to this variation. We did this using light-level geolocators deployed on the breeding grounds to follow continental black-tailed godwits (Limosa limosa limosa) throughout their south- and northward migrations over multiple years. Based on repeated tracks from 36 individuals, we found two general patterns in godwit migratory behavior: First, migratory timing in black-tailed godwits varies mostly because individual godwits migrate at different times of the year. Second, individuals also exhibit considerable variation in timing within their respective migratory windows. Although the absolute amount of inter-individual variation in timing decreased over the course of northward migration, individual godwits still arrived at their breeding grounds across a span of more than 5 weeks. These differences in migratory timing among individuals are larger than those currently observed in other migratory bird species and suggest that the selective forces that limit the variation in migratory timing in other species are relaxed or absent in godwits. Furthermore, we could not attribute these individual differences to the sex or wintering location of an individual. We suggest that different developmental trajectories enabled by developmental plasticity likely result in these generally consistent, life-long annual routines. To investigate this possibility and to gain an understanding of the different selection pressures that could be acting during migration and throughout a godwit's life, future studies should track juvenile godwits and other migratory birds from birth to adulthood while also manipulating their spatiotemporal environment during development.

Original languageEnglish
Article number31
JournalFrontiers in Ecology and Evolution
Issue numberFEB
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • Developmental plasticity
  • Light-level geolocators
  • Migratory behavior
  • Repeatability
  • Shorebird


Dive into the research topics of 'Variation from an unknown source: Large inter-individual differences in migrating black-tailed godwits'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this