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Bird migration takes plants in wrong direction to cope with climate change - University of Exeter

Migratory birds carry most seeds in the wrong direction to help plants cope with climate change, new research shows.

The study, published in Nature, reveals that the vast majority of plants from European woodlands are dispersed by birds migrating to warmer latitudes in the south, while far fewer are dispersed by birds migrating north.

As a consequence of global warming, the optimal climatic conditions of species are moving towards cooler latitudes, forcing the redistribution of life on Earth.

Mobility allows many animals to reach new areas with a suitable climate.

However, movement of plant species depends on the dispersal of their seeds at long distances.

The new study, by 18 researchers from 13 European institutions, says the trend for southwards dispersal by migratory birds is counterproductive if plants are to adapt to climate change.

“Contemporary climate change is so fast that many plants require dispersal distances far beyond those that normally take place locally," said lead author Juan Pedro González-Varo, of the University of Cádiz. "This is where migratory birds can play a major role, as they are capable of dispersing seeds over tens of kilometres. With this research, we wanted to know the potential of plant species to be dispersed by migratory birds towards future favourable areas.”

The research focussed on bird species that consume fruits and disperse the seeds.

Researchers incorporated information on the fruiting period of plants and migratory patterns of birds, in order to identify the potential for long-distance seed dispersal towards cooler or warmer latitudes.

They examined 13 woodlands across Europe, including a total of 949 interactions between 46 bird and 81 plant species.

Only 35% of the plants from these woodland communities are dispersed by birds that migrate northwards in spring.

In contrast, 86% of plants are dispersed by birds migrating to warmer areas in autumn (the figures do not add up to 100% because some plants' seeds are carried both north in spring and south in autumn).

Access the paper: González-Varo, J.P., Rumeu, B., Albrecht, J. et al. Limited potential for bird migration to disperse plants to cooler latitudes. Nature (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03665-2

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