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Species-specific traits mediate avian demographic responses under past climate change


Anticipating species’ responses to environmental change is a pressing mission in biodiversity conservation. Despite decades of research investigating how climate change may affect population sizes, historical context is lacking, and the traits that mediate demographic sensitivity to changing climate remain elusive. We use whole-genome sequence data to reconstruct the demographic histories of 263 bird species over the past million years and identify networks of interacting morphological and life history traits associated with changes in effective population size (Ne) in response to climate warming and cooling. Our results identify direct and indirect effects of key traits representing dispersal, reproduction and survival on long-term demographic responses to climate change, thereby highlighting traits most likely to influence population responses to ongoing climate warming.

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Fig. 1: Demographic histories of 263 avian species from 30 thousand years ago (kya) to 1 million years ago (Mya) (x axis presented on the log10 scale).
Fig. 2: Demographic histories of different avian groups from 30 kya to 1 Mya (all x axes presented on the log10 scale).
Fig. 3: Mean change in normalized Ne from 30 kya to 1 Mya for 263 avian species, summarized by zoogeographic realm.
Fig. 4: Network effects of key morphological and life history traits on demographic responses to climate warming and climate cooling, shown as directed acyclic graphs (left) and corresponding standardized regression coefficients (±s.e.) (right) for averaged best-performing models.

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Data availability

All data underlying these analyses (including raw Ne estimates over time for each species) are available in the Dryad Digital Repository38.

Code availability

All code underlying these analyses is available in the Dryad Digital Repository38.


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This work was made possible by the generous efforts of field biologists and museum staff who contributed samples to the B10k Project. This work was supported by a National Natural Science Foundation of China grant (nos. 32170626 and 31901214) to S.F., an Independent Research Fund Denmark grant to D.N.-B. and G.Z. (no. 8021-00282B) and grants from the Strategic Priority Research Program of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (no. XDB31020000), International Partnership Program of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (no. 152453KYSB20170002), Carlsberg Foundation (no. CF16-0663) and Villum Foundation (no. 25900) to G.Z.

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R.R.G., S.F., G.Z. and D.N-B. designed the study and wrote the paper. R.R.G., S.F. and G.C. carried out analyses. R.R.G., S.F., G.C., G.R.G., J.A.T., C.R., F.L., J.F., P.A.H., M.T.P.G., G.Z. and D.N-B. contributed towards the assembly of genomic and morphological and life history data, discussion of results and reviewing and editing the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Ryan R. Germain, Guojie Zhang or David Nogués-Bravo.

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Nature Ecology & Evolution thanks Nicolas Dussex and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Germain, R.R., Feng, S., Chen, G. et al. Species-specific traits mediate avian demographic responses under past climate change. Nat Ecol Evol 7, 862–872 (2023).

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