Are long-term widespread avian body size changes related to food availability? A test using contemporaneous changes in carotenoid-based color

Roellen Little, Janet L Gardner, Tatsuya Amano, Kaspar Delhey, Anne Peters

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4 Citations (Scopus)


Recent changes in global climate have been linked with changes in animal body size. While declines in body size are commonly explained as an adaptive thermoregulatory response to climate warming, many species do not decline in size, and alternative explanations for size change exist. One possibility is that temporal changes in animal body size are driven by changes in environmental productivity and food availability. This hypothesis is difficult to test due to the lack of suitable estimates that go back in time. Here, we use an alternative, indirect, approach and assess whether continent-wide changes over the previous 100 years in body size in 15 species of Australian birds are associated with changes in their yellow carotenoid-based plumage coloration. This type of coloration is strongly affected by food availability because birds cannot synthesize carotenoids and need to ingest them, and because color expression depends on general body condition. We found significant continent-wide intraspecific temporal changes in body size (wing length) and yellow carotenoid-based color (plumage reflectance) for half the species. Direction and magnitude of changes were highly variable among species. Meta-analysis indicated that neither body size nor yellow plumage color showed a consistent temporal trend and that changes in color were not correlated with changes in size over the past 100 years. We conclude that our data provide no evidence that broad-scale variation in food availability is a general explanation for continent-wide changes in body size in this group of species. The interspecific variability in temporal changes in size as well as color suggests that it might be unlikely that a single factor drives these changes, and more detailed studies of museum specimens and long-term field studies are required to disentangle the processes involved.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3157-3166
Number of pages10
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2017


  • Bergmann's rule
  • carotenoids
  • global change
  • plumage reflectance

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