Rosse Grutto's arriveren op de toendra broedgebieden rond de tijd van het smelten van de sneeuw.

Changing climate homogenizes diversity in migratory birds

NIOZ Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research
13-DEC-2023 - Changing climate may slowly erode the difference between two subspecies of bar-tailed godwits. That warning is voiced by bird researchers from the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ) and the University of Amsterdam (UvA) in the latest edition of the scientific journal Global Change Biology.

Early snowmelt

Global warming makes the snow melting earlier in the Arctic breeding grounds of the bar-tailed godwit. But the changes are not happening at the same pace everywhere. On the Siberian peninsula of Taimyr, snow melted half a day earlier each year between 1997 and 2020. On Yamal Peninsula, southwest of Taimyr, there was no measurable advance in snowmelt during that period.

Two subspecies

Both territories host different subspecies of the bar-tailed godwit: Limosa lapponica taymyrensis on Taimyr and Limosa lapponica yamalensis on Yamal. In both areas, the birds normally arrive several days before the snow melts. Thus, by advancing the snowmelt on Taimyr, L. l. taymyrensis arrived in the breeding areas about five days earlier in the last two decades than in the two decades before that. This is shown by birds that were fitted with light-weight satellite tags.


The two populations of bar-tailed godwits are not strictly separated. In spring, they may actually encounter each other in an area south of the two breeding areas. So far, this does not happen very often, because the yamalensis birds have a slightly earlier travel schedule than the taymyrensis¬birds. However, now that the taymyrensis-birds have started to migrate increasingly earlier, whereas the yamalensis-birds have not, the two groups will show increasing overlap, and thus encounter each other more often in western Siberia.

Male bar-tailed godwit on the tundra breeding site after the snow has melted

Social birds

"Bar-tailed godwits are socially migrating birds", Bom explains. "There is a chance that individuals of the taymyrensis subspecies will join yamalensis more often and vice versa. Since both subspecies can interbreed without difficulty, this would mean that the distinction between the subspecies would slowly erode."

Homogeneous population

If the researchers extrapolate the current trend, they anticipate that the travel schedules will completely overlap sometime between 2036 and 2040. Whereas taymyrensis is currently still migrating along a western route, via the Wadden Sea to West Africa, and yamalensis is migrating along the Urals to the Caspian Sea and the Arabian Peninsula, this could eventually become one large, homogeneous population.

Loss of diversity

Bom is first and foremost fascinated by these possible developments in the migration of the two subspecies. As a biologist, however, he is also concerned about the potential loss of diversity. "The resilience of plant and animal species depends on genetic diversity. Climate change now threatens to create a kind of uniformity that could come at the expense of loss of diversity among the godwits and other migratory birds as well.”

Unexpected challenge

His co-author Eldar Rakhimberdiev of the UvA’s Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics adds: "These results do not apply solely to godwits. In a few decades, latitudinal differences in the onset of spring will disappear for many more temporally isolated populations. This implies that, in addition to the rise in temperature and shift in the onset of spring, one of the unexpected challenges posed by climate change is the homogenization of animal populations worldwide".

Bar-tailed godwit

More information

Text: NIOZ Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research
Images: Jan van de Kam (leadphoto: bar-tailed godwits arrive in the tundra-breading grounds around the time of snowmelt); Marie Guilpin, NIOZ