Not as the crow flies: a historical explanation for circuitous migration in Swainson's thrush (Catharus ustulatus)

Kristen C. Ruegg, Thomas B. Smith


Many migratory songbirds follow circuitous migratory routes instead of taking the shortest path between overwintering and breeding areas. Here, we study the migration patterns in Swainson's thrush (Catharus ustulatus), a neartic–neotropical migrant songbird, using molecular genetic approaches. This species is presently separated into genetically distinct coastal and continental populations that diverged during the Late Pleistocene (as indicated by molecular dating), yet appear to have retained ancestral patterns of migration. Low nucleotide diversity, a star–like haplotype phylogeny and unimodal mismatch distributions all support the hypothesis that both the coastal and the continental populations have undergone recent demographic expansions. Nearctic–neotropical banding and genetic data show nearly complete segregation of migratory routes and of overwintering locations: coastal populations migrate along the Pacific Coast to overwintering sites in Central America and Mexico, whereas continental populations migrate along an eastern route to overwintering sites in Panama and South America. Nearctic–neotropical banding data also show that continental birds north, northwest and east of this migratory divide fly thousands of miles east before turning south. We conclude that circuitous migration in the Swainson's thrush is an artefact of a Late Pleistocene range expansion.