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PLoS One. 2011 Apr 18;6(4):e18732. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0018732.

Morphological shifts of the external flight apparatus across the range of a passerine (Northern Wheatear) with diverging migratory behaviour.

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Institute of Avian Research, Vogelwarte Helgoland, Wilhelmshaven, Germany.


We studied morphological differentiation in the flight apparatus of the four currently recognised sub-species of Northern Wheatears, Oenanthe oenanthe. Considering all measured birds without assigning them a priori to any sub-species we found a clinal morphological shift. Relative wing length, wing pointedness, and the degree of tail forking were positively correlated with migratory distance, whereas tail length (relative to wing length) was negatively correlated. The large-sized, long-distance migrant "Greenland" Wheatear, O. o. leucorhoa, is characterized by relatively longer, broader and more pointed wings and more forked tails, similar to the smaller-sized nominate Northern Wheatear, O. o. oenanthe, from North Europe, Siberia and Russia. In contrast, the short distance migrant "Seebohm's" Wheatear, O. o. seebohmi, from northwest Africa, possesses much rounder wings, and the tail is relatively longer and less forked. Sub-species with intermediate migratory habits (different populations of nominate Northern Wheatear, O. o. oenanthe, and "Mediterranean" Northern Wheatear, O. o. libanotica) show, as expected, intermediate features according to their intermediate migratory behaviour. Our results are congruent with other inter- and intraspecific studies finding similar adaptations for energy-effective flight in relation to migration distance (morphological migratory syndrome).

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