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Energy efficiency drives the global seasonal distribution of birds


The uneven distribution of biodiversity on Earth is one of the most general and puzzling patterns in ecology. Many hypotheses have been proposed to explain it, based on evolutionary processes or on constraints related to geography and energy. However, previous studies investigating these hypotheses have been largely descriptive due to the logistical difficulties of conducting controlled experiments on such large geographical scales. Here, we use bird migration—the seasonal redistribution of approximately 15% of bird species across the world—as a natural experiment for testing the species–energy relationship, the hypothesis that animal diversity is driven by energetic constraints. We develop a mechanistic model of bird distributions across the world, and across seasons, based on simple ecological and energetic principles. Using this model, we show that bird species distributions optimize the balance between energy acquisition and energy expenditure while taking into account competition with other species. These findings support, and provide a mechanistic explanation for, the species–energy relationship. The findings also provide a general explanation of migration as a mechanism that allows birds to optimize their energy budget in the face of seasonality and competition. Finally, our mechanistic model provides a tool for predicting how ecosystems will respond to global anthropogenic change.

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Fig. 1: Model description.
Fig. 2: Contrast between empirical patterns in the global spatial distribution of terrestrial birds across seasons and the same patterns simulated through the overall best-fit model.
Fig. 3: Latitudinal trends for empirical and simulated patterns in the global spatial distribution of terrestrial birds across seasons.
Fig. 4: Predictive value of the overall best-fit model contrasted with the best-guess model and the null models.


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We are grateful to BirdLife International, NatureServe and all the volunteers who collected and compiled the data on the distribution of bird species, and to R. Green, M. Brooke, K. Gaston, B. Sutherland, B. Sheldon and B. Van Doren for discussions. M.S. was funded by an Entente Cordiale scholarship and an Edward Grey Institute postdoctoral fellowship.

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M.S. conceived the model and developed it with A.M and A.S.L.R. M.S. also performed the analyses with support from A.M., and drafted the paper with conceptual and editorial input from all authors.

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Correspondence to Marius Somveille.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Figures 1–11, Supplementary Results, Supplementary References

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Somveille, M., Rodrigues, A.S.L. & Manica, A. Energy efficiency drives the global seasonal distribution of birds. Nat Ecol Evol 2, 962–969 (2018).

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