Migration triggers in a large herbivore: Galapagos giant tortoises navigating resources gradients on volcanoes

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To understand how migratory behavior evolved and to predict the future of migratory species in the face of global environmental change it is important to quantify intra- and inter-individual variation in migratory behavior. Intra-individual variation includes behavioral response to changing environmental conditions and hence behavioral plasticity in the context of novel conditions. Inter-individual variation determines the degree of variation on which selection can act and the rate of evolutionary response to changes in average and extreme environmental conditions. Here we focus on variation in the partial migratory behavior of Galapagos giant tortoises (Chelonoidis spp.), which exhibit high fidelity to migratory routes over many years. We evaluate the extent and mechanisms by which tortoises adjust migration timing in response to varying annual environmental conditions, integrating movement data within a bioenergetic model of tortoise migration to quantify the fitness consequences of migration timing. We find strong inter-individual variation in the timing of migration, which was not affected by environmental conditions prevailing at the time of migration but rather by marginal expectations estimated from multi-annual averaged conditions, leading to an average annual loss in efficiency of ~15% relative to optimal timing based on year-specific conditions. These results point towards a limited ability of tortoises to adjust the timing of their migrations based on prevailing (and, by extension, future) conditions, suggesting that the adaptability of tortoise migratory behavior to changing conditions is predicated more on past “normal” conditions than responsive to current, changing conditions. Our work offers insights into the level of environmental-tuning in migratory behavior and a general framework for future research across taxa.

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Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Migration triggers in a large herbivore: Galapagos giant tortoises navigating resources gradients on volcanoes
Series title Ecology
DOI 10.1002/ecy.2658
Volume 100
Issue 6
Year Published 2019
Language English
Publisher Ecological Society of America
Contributing office(s) Southwest Biological Science Center
Description e02658; 11 p.
Country Ecuador
Other Geospatial Galapagos Islands
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