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Author ORCID Identifier


Open Access Dissertation

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program

Organismic and Evolutionary Biology

Year Degree Awarded


Month Degree Awarded


First Advisor

Alexander R. Gerson

Subject Categories

Biology | Ecology and Evolutionary Biology | Ornithology


Annual migration in songbirds is one of the most demanding life-history stages. It represents a period of high mortality, yet there is still much unknown about the ecological correlates that influence its successful completion. After long non-stop migratory flights, birds require a stopover period to rest and replenish depleted energy reserves. Birds use fat as the primary fuel to power long-distance flights. However, birds also burn lean tissue, which results in significant reductions in muscle and organ masses. The discovery and quantification of lean mass catabolism represented a paradigm shift in migration ecology because non-fat components were thought to remain homeostatic. Because rebuilding protein is slow, muscle and organ breakdown during migration may dramatically prolong stopover periods and delay overall migration time, which in turn dramatically reduces breeding success. Therefore, the breakdown of lean tissue, the conditions that lead to it, and its consequences are important considerations in understanding the migration strategies of birds.

Through this dissertation research, I aim to understand the impact of weather on body condition and how physiological condition impacts subsequent migratory performance. I investigate (1) how weather impacts the lean mass of songbirds after crossing an ecological barrier, and (2) how body condition after crossing an ecological barrier affects stopover duration, refueling rate, and habitat use. My predictions are that higher nightly temperatures or drier conditions experienced during migratory flight will correspond with lower lean body mass on arrival; and that birds with lower lean body mass will require longer stopovers, different habitat, or higher foraging effort to continue migration.

I used an integrative approach, combining the field and lab, to better understand how weather experienced during flight can impact the body condition of migratory birds and how this can influence the entire migratory cycle. By using Quantitative Magnetic Resonance (QMR) technology in combination with a novel automated radio-telemetry system, my research provides unprecedented access to detailed physiological and movement data for small migratory songbirds. This research underlines that successfully crossing the Gulf of Mexico may be a key driver of physiological and morphological adaptations. My findings challenge the current paradigm that birds with low lean mass require longer stopover and demonstrates that species under time constraints may shorten stopover even when in poor condition, departing in sub-optimal body condition.


Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.