SAN FRANCISCO -- Birds are getting bigger in central California, and that was a big surprise for Rae Goodman and her colleagues.
Goodman uncovered the trend while working as a graduate student for San Francisco State University biologist Gretchen LeBuhn, analyzing data from thousands of birds caught and released each year at two sites near San Francisco Bay and the Point Reyes National Seashore.
The SF State scientists, working with researchers from PRBO Conservation Science and the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory who collected the data, found that birds' wings have grown longer and birds are increasing in mass over the last 27 to 40 years.
What's making the birds bigger? The researchers think that the trend is due to climate change, but their findings put a twist in the usual thinking about climate change and body size. A well-known ecological rule, called Bergmann's Rule, states that animals tend to be larger at higher latitudes. One reason for this rule might be that larger animals conserve body heat better, allowing them to thrive in the generally colder climate of higher latitudes.
Under this reasoning, some scientists have predicted that animals would get smaller as the Earth has warmed up over the past 100 years. But the study, published in the journal Global Change Biology, suggests that the connection may not be so simple.
Climate change may affect body size in a variety of ways, they note in their paper. For instance, birds might get bigger as they store more fat to ride out severe weather events, which are expected to be more common under global climate change. Climate change could also alter a region's plant growth, which may eventually lead to changes in a bird's diet that affect its size.
LeBuhn, an assistant professor of biology, said she was "completely surprised" to find that the central California birds were growing larger over time. "It's one of those moments where you ask, '
|Contact: Elaine Bible|
San Francisco State University