Understanding variation in migratory movements: A mechanistic approach

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General and Comparative Endocrinology


Spatial and temporal fluctuations in resource availability have led to the evolution of varied migration patterns. In order to appropriately time movements in relation to resources, environmental cues are used to provide proximate information for timing and the endocrine system serves to integrate these external cues and behavioral and physiological responses. Yet, the regulatory mechanisms underlying migratory timing have rarely been compared across a broad range of migratory patterns. First, we offer an updated nomenclature of migration using a mechanistic perspective to clarify terminology describing migratory types in relation to ecology, behavior and endocrinology. We divide migratory patterns into three types: obligate, nomadic, and fugitive. Obligate migration is characterized by regular and directed annual movements between locations, most commonly for breeding and overwintering, where resources are predictable and sufficient. Nomadic migrations occur less predictably than do obligate migrations as animals make use of potentially rich but ephemeral resources that occur unpredictably in space or time. Fugitive migrations move animals away from an area in response to severe disruption of environmental conditions and occur as part of an emergency life history stage. We also consider partially migratory populations, which include a mix of sedentary and migratory individuals; the movement patterns of partial migrants are expected to fall into one of the three types above. For these various forms of migration, we review our understanding of the environmental cues and endocrine mechanisms that underlie the expression of a migratory state. Several common hormonal mechanisms exist across the varied migratory forms, but there are also important areas where further investigations are needed in order to gain broad insight into the origin of movements and the diversity of migratory patterns. We propose that taking a comparative approach across the migratory types that considers endocrine mechanisms will advance a new understanding of migration biology.

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