Behavioural plasticity is associated with reduced extinction risk in birds


Behavioural plasticity is believed to reduce species vulnerability to extinction, yet global evidence supporting this hypothesis is lacking. We address this gap by quantifying the extent to which birds are observed behaving in novel ways to obtain food in the wild; based on a unique dataset of >3,800 novel behaviours, we show that species with a higher propensity to innovate are at a lower risk of global extinction and are more likely to have increasing or stable populations than less innovative birds. These results mainly reflect a higher tolerance of innovative species to habitat destruction, the main threat for birds.

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Fig. 1: Behavioural plasticity is associated with extinction risk.
Fig. 2: Coefficient estimates of models predicting extinction risk and population trends.

Data availability

The dataset used in this study is available from Dryad (

Code availability

The R code used in this study is available from Dryad (


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This research was supported by funds from the Spanish government (grant no. CGL2017-90033-P) to D.S. and a Discovery grant from NSERC Canada to L.L. We are grateful to J. DeVore for discussion and for her comments on a previous version of the manuscript, to J.-N. Audet and the Sol laboratory for discussions, and to O. Lapiedra and S. Bressler for providing photos included in Fig. 1.

Author information




S.D. and L.L. initiated the project. L.L. compiled the innovation dataset. S.D., D.S. and F.S. compiled the remaining data. S.D. designed the analyses with the help of D.S. and F.S., and ran the analyses. S.D. wrote a first draft of the manuscript. All authors edited and approved the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Simon Ducatez.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Effect size of the regression coefficients of technical innovativeness (a), technical innovation rate (b), consumer innovativeness (c) or consumer innovation rate (d) and covariables on bird extinction risk and population trend estimated with Bayesian phylogenetic mixed models.

The effect is considered significant when its credibility interval (CI) does not overlap zero. Extinction risk (ordinal, from 1 = LC to 5 = CR) was modelled so that a negative effect of, for example, innovativeness, means that innovative species have a lower risk of extinction, and population trend (ordinal, from 1 = decreasing to 3 = increasing) was modelled so that a positive effect of, for example, innovativeness, means that innovative species are more likely to have increasing populations. All parameters are in the same model which also includes phylogeny and geographic region as random factors. Error bars are the 95% CIs estimated by MCMCglmm.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Coefficient estimates of models predicting extinction risk as a function of innovativeness (left panel) or innovation rate (right panel) according to the type of threat. Most endangered birds are exposed to more than one threat, making isolating species responses to a specific threat difficult.

We therefore compared the effect of innovation propensity on extinction risk in subsets of species exposed vs. not exposed to each threat. If innovation propensity limits the effects of a specific threat on extinction risk, it should decrease extinction risk in species exposed to the threat, but not in species that are not exposed. If innovation propensity does not buffer the effect of a certain threat, its effect on extinction risk should not differ between exposed and non-exposed species. Posterior effect size means, credibility intervals and species numbers are shown.

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Ducatez, S., Sol, D., Sayol, F. et al. Behavioural plasticity is associated with reduced extinction risk in birds. Nat Ecol Evol 4, 788–793 (2020).

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