Longer-lived tropical songbirds reduce breeding activity as they buffer impacts of drought


Droughts are expected to increase in frequency and severity with climate change. Population impacts of such harsh environmental events are theorized to vary with life history strategies among species. However, existing demographic models generally do not consider behavioural plasticity that may modify the impact of harsh events. Here we show that tropical songbirds in the New and Old Worlds reduced reproduction during drought, with greater reductions in species with higher average long-term survival. Large reductions in reproduction by longer-lived species were associated with higher survival during drought than predrought years in Malaysia, whereas shorter-lived species maintained reproduction and survival decreased. Behavioural strategies of longer-lived, but not shorter-lived, species mitigated the effect of increasing drought frequency on long-term population growth. Behavioural plasticity can buffer the impact of climate change on populations of some species and differences in plasticity among species related to their life histories are critical for predicting population trajectories.

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Fig. 1: Possible demographic consequences of drought in tropical rainforest for songbirds.
Fig. 2: Tropical songbirds reduce breeding activity in drought years on two continents.
Fig. 3: Relationships of reproductive activity and survival across Malaysian species.
Fig. 4: General demographic consequences of drought.
Fig. 5: Population elasticity and simulated population growth under historic frequencies of drought.
Fig. 6: Drought frequency and simulated population growth under alternative climate change scenarios for the future.

Data availability

Life history data are available in Dryad (https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.gf1vhhmm8). Source data are provided with this paper.

Code availability

R code for population models are available in Dryad (https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.gf1vhhmm8).


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We appreciate helpful comments from J. Brodie, C. Conway, B. Heidinger, L. S. Mills and our laboratory on the manuscript. We are grateful to C. Armstad and numerous field assistants for help collecting data for this study. We are grateful to S. Williams for advice on survival analyses and to Sabah Parks and the Sabah Biodiversity Centre in Malaysia and C. Bosque, INPARQUES and Fonacit in Venezuela for logistical support. This work was supported by the National Science Foundation (Graduate Research Fellowship and grant nos. DEB-1701672 to J.C.M.; DEB-1241041, DEB-1651283 and IOS-1656120 to T.E.M.) and the Drollinger Family Charitable Foundation. This work was conducted under University of Montana IACUC no. 059-10TMMCWRU. Any use of trade, firm or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the US Government.

Author information




T.E.M. designed the study, analysed the field data and obtained funding. J.C.M. conducted all climate and demographic modelling. Both authors collected data and contributed to writing and revising the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Thomas E. Martin.

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Peer review information Nature Climate Change thanks Peter Grant and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Phylogenetic relationships of all study species from birdtree.org.

Species from the Venezuela site are depicted blue and species from the Malaysia site are depicted in orange. Abbreviations based on scientific names in parentheses are the eight species used for population simulation analyses, and include long-lived in red, short-lived in blue, and wet-habitat species in yellow-green. Source data

Extended Data Fig. 2 Linear mixed model analyses of reproductive output in drought versus non-drought years.

Differences in clutch size and number of young that fledged (left the nest) were compared between drought versus non-drought years, while including species and year as random factors.

Supplementary information

Source data

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Source Data Fig. 3

Source data for Fig. 3.

Source Data Fig. 5

Source data for Fig. 5.

Source Data Fig. 6

Source data for Fig. 6.

Source Data Extended Data Fig. 1

Source data for Extended Data Fig. 1.

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Martin, T.E., Mouton, J.C. Longer-lived tropical songbirds reduce breeding activity as they buffer impacts of drought. Nat. Clim. Chang. 10, 953–958 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-020-0864-3

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