Combining citizen science species distribution models and stable isotopes reveals migratory connectivity in the secretive Virginia rail

Journal of Applied Ecology
By: , and 



  1. Stable hydrogen isotope (δD) methods for tracking animal movement are widely used yet often produce low resolution assignments. Incorporating prior knowledge of abundance, distribution or movement patterns can ameliorate this limitation, but data are lacking for most species. We demonstrate how observations reported by citizen scientists can be used to develop robust estimates of species distributions and to constrain δD assignments.
  2. We developed a Bayesian framework to refine isotopic estimates of migrant animal origins conditional on species distribution models constructed from citizen scientist observations. To illustrate this approach, we analysed the migratory connectivity of the Virginia rail Rallus limicola, a secretive and declining migratory game bird in North America.
  3. Citizen science observations enabled both estimation of sampling bias and construction of bias-corrected species distribution models. Conditioning δD assignments on these species distribution models yielded comparably high-resolution assignments.
  4. Most Virginia rails wintering across five Gulf Coast sites spent the previous summer near the Great Lakes, although a considerable minority originated from the Chesapeake Bay watershed or Prairie Pothole region of North Dakota. Conversely, the majority of migrating Virginia rails from a site in the Great Lakes most likely spent the previous winter on the Gulf Coast between Texas and Louisiana.
  5. Synthesis and applications. In this analysis, Virginia rail migratory connectivity does not fully correspond to the administrative flyways used to manage migratory birds. This example demonstrates that with the increasing availability of citizen science data to create species distribution models, our framework can produce high-resolution estimates of migratory connectivity for many animals, including cryptic species. Empirical evidence of links between seasonal habitats will help enable effective habitat management, hunting quotas and population monitoring and also highlight critical knowledge gaps.

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Combining citizen science species distribution models and stable isotopes reveals migratory connectivity in the secretive Virginia rail
Series title Journal of Applied Ecology
DOI 10.1111/1365-2664.12723
Volume 54
Issue 2
Year Published 2017
Language English
Publisher British Ecological Society
Contributing office(s) Coop Res Unit Atlanta
Description 10 p.
First page 618
Last page 627
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