Widespread recent changes in morphology of Old World birds, global warming the immediate suspect

Shahar Dubiner*, Shai Meiri

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


Aim: A decline in body size has been proposed as a universal response to global warming, but this is often questioned. We describe and characterize recent morphological changes in the avifauna of Israel as a whole and test several hypotheses regarding their cause. Location: Israel. Time period: 1950–2020. Major taxa studied: Aves. Methods: We analysed the morphology of 7,981 museum specimens. For each of the 106 species, we calculated the rate of change in mass, head and body length, wing length and approximate relative surface area, both over time and as a function of temperature anomaly (the difference between temperatures in a given year and the interannual average). We used phylogenetic generalized linear mixed models (PGLMMs) to determine trends and their relationship to the ecology of species. Results: Over the last 70 years there have been consistent changes through time in mass, length and surface area-to-volume ratio. Mass decreased by 18.3%, length increased by 5.1%, and surface area-to-volume ratio increased by 28.9%. The increase in the ratio of surface area to volume through time corresponds to a 12.2% increase per degree Celsius of warming. In contrast, changes in wing length were few and inconsistent. Most species changed in either mass or length, but seldom in both. The effect of rising temperature on morphology was roughly an order of magnitude stronger than the effect of a comparable geographical difference in habitat temperature. Changes were modulated by migratory habits but not explained by human commensalism or diet. Main conclusions: A decrease in mass and increase in length are widespread, both leading to higher relative surface area. Results conform with predicted responses to global warming, but not with any of our other tested hypotheses. If warming is the driver of these changes, the diverging responses observed between different species might represent different solutions to solve a common problem.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)791-801
Number of pages11
JournalGlobal Ecology and Biogeography
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2022


  • birds
  • body condition
  • body size
  • climate change
  • global warming
  • heat loss
  • migration
  • morphology
  • museum specimens


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