Environmental drivers of variability in the movement ecology of turkey vultures (cathartes aura) in North and South America

Somayeh Dodge, Gil Bohrer, Keith Bildstein, Sarah C. Davidson, Rolf Weinzierl, Marc J. Bechard, David Barber, Roland Kays, David Brandes, Jiawei Han, Martin Wikelski

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

116 Scopus citations


Variation is key to the adaptability of species and their ability to survive changes to the Earth's climate and habitats. Plasticity in movement strategies allows a species to better track spatial dynamics of habitat quality.We describe the mechanisms that shape the movement of a long-distance migrant bird (turkey vulture, Cathartes aura) across two continents using satellite tracking coupled with remote-sensing science. Using nearly 10 years of data from 24 satellite-tracked vultures in four distinct populations, we describe an enormous amount of variation in their movement patterns. We related vulture movement to environmental conditions and found important correlations explaining howfar they need tomove to find food (indexed by the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) and how fast they can move based on the prevalence of thermals and temperature. We conclude that the extensive variability in the movement ecology of turkey vultures, facilitated by their energetically efficient thermal soaring, suggests that this species is likely to do well across periods of modest climate change. The large scale and sample sizes needed for such analysis in a widespread migrant emphasizes the need for integrated and collaborative efforts to obtain tracking data and for policies, tools and open datasets to encourage such collaborations and data sharing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1643
StatePublished - May 26 2014


  • Avian scavengers
  • Geographical variability
  • Migration
  • Movement ecology
  • Remote-sensing observations
  • Vultures


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