SBiK-F research group Geobiodiversity Research

Emmy Noether Research project: Macroevolution of climatic niches


This page is dedicated to the Emmy Noether project „Macroevolution of climatic niches in birds“, which was awarded to Dr Susanne Fritz by the German Research Foundation (DFG, Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) and ran from summer 2014 until early 2021. The original project duration was 5 years, with a successful renewal proposal extending this to 6 years, and an additional 3-month extension due to the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic in the final project year. Apart from the Emmy Noether group leader herself, the project employed two PhD students (3 years each) in the original project and a postdoctoral researcher (1.25 years) in the renewal phase.

Climatic niches and species’ traits in birds

How do species interact with their abiotic and biotic environment, and how can such interactions change through time? Bridging the research fields of macroecology and macroevolution, the project focussed on the ecological niches of species and the evolution of these niches over geological timescales. The ecological niche of a species encompasses all abiotic and biotic conditions where individuals of a species can survive and reproduce successfully. We studied two aspects of this niche: the climatic niche, i.e. the climatic conditions necessary for survival and reproduction, and ecologically relevant morphological traits, e.g. size and shape of beak and wing, which shape diet and foraging, locomotion, and habitat use. Our goal was to reveal how and why climatic niches and traits differ across species, how they evolve, and how they might be related to each other. For the project, over 500 species of birds were investigated. These constitute eight groups of passerine birds (i.e., from the order Passeriformes) selected for their mix of closely related migratory and resident species, as we also wanted to know how seasonal migration impacts climatic niches and traits.

Diversity dynamics in space and time

Taking an even broader perspective, we also analysed different aspects of biological diversity, most notably species richness and trait diversity. We were interested to see how the number of species (richness) in a place is related to its environmental conditions, and studied this along different elevational gradients (Andes, Mount Kilimanjaro) in birds and globally in terrestrial vertebrates (birds, mammals, and amphibians). In many of these studies, we compared richness to trait diversity, i.e. which traits the species in a place or group have and how different these traits are from each other. This was done to understand how environmental conditions might select which species with specific traits can occur and interact with each other in a given place. We also investigated how richness and trait patterns and their relationships with climatic conditions change through time, e.g. among seasons in birds across the world, or over geological timescales in fossil mammals of the Neogene (roughly 23-2 million years ago) across North America and Europe.

Scientific results

Please see the drop-out menu below for our selection of important results and publications, as well as links to press releases that explain specific results in more general terms.

Achievements in numbers

We compiled and linked extensive global datasets of geographic occurrences of living species, climatic conditions, species’ traits, and species-level molecular phylogenies (i.e. „family trees“ of species that show evolutionary relationships and timing of divergence) for eight selected groups of birds (ca. 500 species), as well as globally for all non-marine birds (ca. 10,100 species). We also compiled and investigated data from the fossil record, in particular >12,000 occurrence records for ca. 690 genera of large mammals. We published >25 peer-reviewed publications to date, including in high-impact journals (see drop-out menu below), and disseminated our work at >20 scientific conferences and through six press releases (see links below). Both students in the project have been awarded a PhD from Goethe University Frankfurt, and four additional completed PhD theses, two theses in the MSc Ecology and Evolution, and two theses in the BSc Biological Sciences were at least partly associated with the project.

Our top ten favourite project results

List of publications sorted by first author and year; project personnel is indicated in bold.

We reviewed how geology and climate shape biodiversity in mountains, and demonstrated the effects of climate, topographic relief, heterogeneity of soil types, and erosion rates on the number of terrestrial vertebrate species occurring in mountain ranges across the world.
Antonelli, A., W. D. Kissling, S. G. A. Flantua, M. A. Bermúdez, A. Mulch, A. N. Muellner-Riehl, H. Kreft, H. P. Linder, C. Badgley, J. Fjeldså, S. A. Fritz, C. Rahbek, F. Herman, H. Hooghiemstra, C. Hoorn (2018) Geological and climatic influences on mountain biodiversity. Nature Geoscience 11: 718-725.  https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-018-0236-z

We compiled the first consistent classification of seasonal and non-seasonal movement behaviour for all 10,443 extant bird species and used this to show how climatic niches can be quantified consistently from geographic distribution data across multiple bird species despite variation in movement behaviour.
Eyres, A., K. Böhning-Gaese, S. A. Fritz (2017). Quantification of climatic niches in birds: adding the temporal dimension. Journal of Avian Biology 48: 1517-1531.   https://doi.org/10.1111/jav.01308

We showed that climatic niches of migratory and sedentary species differ substantially from each other across a global dataset of ca. 500 passerine bird species, indicating that for a migratory species, the climatic niche in the breeding season is typically more different from the climatic niche in the non-breeding season than it is for a closely related sedentary species.
Eyres, A., K. Böhning-Gaese, C. D. L. Orme, C. Rahbek, S. A. Fritz (2020) A tale of two seasons: the link between seasonal migration and climatic niches in passerine birds. Ecology and Evolution 10: 11983-11997.   https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.6729

We found that paleoclimatic change did not drive the speed of change in climatic niches in a group of Old-World flycatchers (65 species of the bird family Muscicapidae) over the last 17 million years; however, cooler temperatures caused faster changes in temperature niche in the birds, but only when using one of the two datasets of reconstructed paleoclimate.
Eyres, A., J. T. Eronen, O. Hagen, K. Böhning-Gaese, S. A. Fritz (2021) Climatic effects on niche evolution in a passerine bird clade depend on paleoclimate reconstruction method. Evolution 75: 1046-1060.  https://doi.org/10.1111/evo.14209

Our study revealed that mammalian fossil diversity through the Neogene (23 to 1.8 million years ago) was significantly related to primary production of biomass from plants, which in turn is shaped by climatic conditions.
Fritz, S. A., J. T. Eronen, J. Schnitzler, C. Hof, C. M. Janis, A. Mulch, K. Böhning-Gaese, C. H. Graham (2016). Twenty-million-year relationship between mammalian diversity and primary productivity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 113: 10908-10913.   https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1602145113

We provide a conceptual framework for future interdisciplinary studies to test the effects of mountain building and climate change on biodiversity over long evolutionary timescales, as well as a case study where we found that onset of surface uplift of the Central Anatolian Plateau ca. 11 million years ago coincided with a period of increased mammalian species turnover in the region.
Huang, S., M. J. M. Meijers, A. Eyres, A. Mulch, S. A. Fritz (2019) Unravelling the history of biodiversity in mountain ranges through integrating geology and biogeography. Journal of Biogeography 46: 1777-1791.   https://doi.org/10.1111/jbi.13622

We showed that morphological traits can evolve differently in migratory vs. sedentary species, supporting different evolutionary selection regimes even in quite closely related species; e.g., migratory species across multiple lineages in five of eight tested passerine bird groups consistently evolved more pointed wings than sedentary species, presumably for improved flight efficiency or endurance.
Phillips, A. G., T. Töpfer, K. Böhning-Gaese, S. A. Fritz (2018) Evidence for distinct evolutionary optima in the morphology of migratory and resident birds. Journal of Avian Biology 49: e01807.  https://doi.org/10.1111/jav.01807

Based on morphological traits of the beak, wings, tail, and tarsi that we measured on 2,465 museum specimen of 491 passerine bird species, we showed how phylogenetic history and geographic distribution interact to shape the trait distribution across species in eight groups of birds.
Phillips, A. G., T. Töpfer, C. Rahbek, K. Böhning-Gaese, S. A. Fritz (2018). Effects of phylogeny and geography on ecomorphological traits in passerine bird clades. Journal of Biogeography 45: 2337-2347.   https://doi.org/10.1111/jbi.13383

Under adaptive radiation theory, younger groups of related species should have higher rates of trait evolution that should slow down through time; however, our results contrast with this expectation in showing that the evolutionary rates for several traits in eight groups of passerine bird species were not consistently affected by the age of the group.
Phillips, A. G., T. Töpfer, K. Böhning-Gaese, S. A. Fritz (2020) Rates of ecomorphological trait evolution in passerine bird clades are independent of age. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 129: 543–557.   https://doi.org/10.1093/biolinnean/blz198

Our conceptual framework for predicting the consequences of climate change on ecological interactions among species in communities argues that we need to combine climatic niche quantifications and projections with knowledge of ecological and morphological traits that govern species’ interactions as well as dispersal ability.
Schleuning, M., E. L. Neuschulz, J. Albrecht, I. M.A. Bender, D. E. Bowler, D. M. Dehling, S. A. Fritz, C. Hof, T. Mueller, L. Nowak, M. C. Sorensen, K. Böhning-Gaese, W. D. Kissling (2020) Trait-based assessments of climate-change impacts on interacting species. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 35: 319-328.   https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2019.12.010

Selected press releases

Project publication summary

To date, we published a total of 25 publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals that acknowledged the project funding.

Scientific journals where we publish most:

7 publications in Journal of Biogeography
2 publications in Ecology and Evolution
2 publications in Journal of Avian Biology
2 publications in Trends in Ecology and Evolution

Top impact factor journals:

1 publication in Biological Reviews
1 publication in Global Ecology and Biogeography
1 publication in Nature Geoscience
1 publication in PNAS
1 publication in Proceedings of the Royal Society B
1 publication in Science
2 publications in Trends in Ecology and Evolution

Full project publication list

List sorted by author surnames; project personnel is indicated in bold; ‡ marks equal author contributions.

A. Antonelli, W. D. Kissling, S. G. A. Flantua, M. A. Bermúdez, A. Mulch, A. N. Muellner-Riehl, H. Kreft, H. P. Linder, C. Badgley, J. Fjeldså, S. A. Fritz, C. Rahbek, F. Herman, H. Hooghiemstra, C. Hoorn (2018) Geological and climatic influences on mountain biodiversity. Nature Geoscience 11: 718-725.   https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-018-0236-z

D. M. Dehling, S. A. Fritz, T. Töpfer, M. Päckert, P. Estler, K. Böhning-Gaese, M. Schleuning (2014) Functional and phylogenetic diversity and assemblage structure of frugivorous birds along an elevational gradient in the tropical Andes. Ecography 37: 1047-1055.   https://doi.org/10.1111/ecog.00623

A. Eyres, K. Böhning-Gaese, S. A. Fritz (2017). Quantification of climatic niches in birds: adding the temporal dimension. Journal of Avian Biology 48: 1517-1531.   https://doi.org/10.1111/jav.01308

A. Eyres, K. Böhning-Gaese, C. D. L. Orme, C. Rahbek, S. A. Fritz (2020) A tale of two seasons: The link between seasonal migration and climatic niches in passerine birds. Ecology and Evolution 10: 11983-11997.   https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.6729

A. Eyres, J. T. Eronen, O. Hagen, K. Böhning-Gaese, S. A. Fritz (2021) Climatic effects on niche evolution in a passerine bird clade depend on paleoclimate reconstruction method. Evolution 75: 1046-1060.  https://doi.org/10.1111/evo.14209

S. A. Fritz, J. T. Eronen, J. Schnitzler, C. Hof, C. M. Janis, A. Mulch, K. Böhning-Gaese, C. H. Graham (2016). Twenty-million-year relationship between mammalian diversity and primary productivity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 113: 10908-10913.  https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1602145113

D. M. Hanz, K. Böhning-Gaese, S. W. Ferger, S. A. Fritz, E. L. Neuschulz, M. Quitián, V. Santillán, T. Töpfer, M. Schleuning (2019) Functional and phylogenetic diversity of bird assemblages are filtered by different biotic factors on tropical mountains. Journal of Biogeography 46: 291-303.    https://doi.org/10.1111/jbi.13489

B. G. Holt, F. G. Marx, S. A. Fritz, J.-P. Lessard, C. Rahbek (2020) Evolutionary diversification in the marine realm: a global case study with marine mammals. Frontiers of Biogeography 12: e45184.    https://doi.org/10.21425/F5FBG45184

S. Huang, J. T. Eronen, C. M. Janis, J. J. Saarinen, D. Silvestro, S. A. Fritz (2017). Mammal body size evolution in North America and Europe over 20 Myr: similar trends generated by different processes. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 284: 20162361.  https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2016.2361

S. Huang‡, M. J. M. Meijers‡, A. Eyres, A. Mulch, S. A. Fritz (2019) Unravelling the history of biodiversity in mountain ranges through integrating geology and biogeography. Journal of Biogeography 46: 1777-1791.  https://doi.org/10.1111/jbi.13622

I. Khaliq, S. A. Fritz, R. Prinzinger, M. Pfenninger, K. Böhning-Gaese, C. Hof (2015) Global variation in thermal physiology of birds and mammals: evidence for phylogenetic niche conservatism only in the tropics. Journal of Biogeography 42: 2187-2196.   https://doi.org/10.1111/jbi.12573

M. J. Lawes, D. O. Fisher, C. N. Johnson, S. P. Blomberg, A. S. K. Frank, S. A. Fritz, H. McCallum, J. VanDerWal, B. N. Abbott, S. Legge, M. Letnic, C. R. Thomas, N. Thurgate, A. Fisher, I. J. Gordon, A. Kutt (2015) Correlates of recent declines of rodents in northern and southern Australia: habitat structure is critical. PLoS One 10: e0130626.   https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0130626

P. J. Leitão, C. J. Andrew, E. K. Engelhardt, C. H. Graham, C. Martinez‐Almoyna, A. Mimet, S. Pinkert, B. Schröder, A. Voskamp, C. Hof, S. A. Fritz (2020) Macroecology as a hub between research disciplines: Opportunities, challenges and possible ways forward. Journal of Biogeography 47: 13-15.   https://doi.org/10.1111/jbi.13751

C. Meyer, W. Jetz, R. P. Guralnick, S. A. Fritz, H. Kreft (2016). Range geometry and socio‐economics dominate species‐level biases in occurrence information. Global Ecology and Biogeography 25: 1181-1193.  https://doi.org/10.1111/geb.12483

A. G. Phillips, T. Töpfer, K. Böhning-Gaese, S. A. Fritz (2018) Evidence for distinct evolutionary optima in the morphology of migratory and resident birds. Journal of Avian Biology 49: e01807.   https://doi.org/10.1111/jav.01807

A. G. Phillips, T. Töpfer, K. Böhning-Gaese, S. A. Fritz (2020) Rates of ecomorphological trait evolution in passerine bird clades are independent of age. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 129: 543–557.   https://doi.org/10.1093/biolinnean/blz198

A. G. Phillips, T. Töpfer, C. Rahbek, K. Böhning-Gaese, S. A. Fritz (2018) Effects of phylogeny and geography on ecomorphological traits in passerine bird clades. Journal of Biogeography 45: 2337-2347.   https://doi.org/10.1111/jbi.13383

W. D. Pearse, A. M. Barbosa, S. A. Fritz, S. A. Keith, L. J. Harmon, J. Harte, D. Silvestro, X. Xiao, T. J. Davies (2018). Building up biogeography: pattern to process. Journal of Biogeography 45: 1223-1230.   https://doi.org/10.1111/jbi.13242

M. Pontarp, L. Bunnefeld, J. S. Cabral, R. S. Etienne, S. A. Fritz, R. Gillespie, C. H. Graham, O. Hagen, F. Hartig, S. Huang, R. Jansson, O. Maliet, T. Münkemüller, L. Pellissier, T. F. Rangel, D. Storch, T. Wiegand, A. H. Hurlbert (2019) The latitudinal diversity gradient: novel understanding through mechanistic eco-evolutionary models. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 34: 211-223.    https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2018.11.009

M. Schleuning, E. L. Neuschulz, J. Albrecht, I. M.A. Bender, D. E. Bowler, D. M. Dehling, S. A. Fritz, C. Hof, T. Mueller, L. Nowak, M. C. Sorensen, K. Böhning-Gaese, W. D. Kissling (2020) Trait-based assessments of climate-change impacts on interacting species. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 35: 319-328.   https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2019.12.010

C. M. Tucker, M. W. Cadotte, S. B. Carvalho, T. J. Davies, S. Ferrier, S. A. Fritz, R. Grenyer, M. R. Helmus, L. S. Jin, A. Ø. Mooers, S. Pavoine, O. Purschke, D. W. Redding, D. F. Rosauer, M. Winter, F. Mazel (2017). A guide to phylogenetic metrics for conservation, community ecology and macroecology. Biological Reviews 92: 698-715.   https://doi.org/10.1111/brv.12252

M. A. Tucker, K. Böhning-Gaese, W. F. Fagan, J. M. Fryxell, B. Van Moorter, … [35 alphabetically sorted authors], S. A. Fritz, …[75 alphabetically sorted authors], T. Mueller (2018). Moving in the Anthropocene: Global reductions in terrestrial mammalian movements. Science 359: 466-469.   https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aam9712

M. G. R. Vollstädt, J. Albrecht, K. Böhning-Gaese, A. Hemp, K. M. Howell, L. Kettering, A. Neu, E. L. Neuschulz, M. Quitián, V. E. Santillán, T. Töpfer, M. Schleuning, S. A. Fritz (2020) Direct and plant-mediated effects of climate on bird diversity in tropical mountains. Ecology and Evolution 10: 14196-14208.  https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.7014

P. Weigelt, W. D. Kissling, Y. Kisel, S. A. Fritz, D. N. Karger, M. Kessler, S. Lehtonen, J.-C. Svenning, H. Kreft (2015). Global patterns and drivers of phylogenetic structure in island floras. Scientific Reports 5: 12213.   https://doi.org/10.1038/srep12213

R. O. Wüest, N. E. Zimmermann, D. Zurell, J. M. Alexander, S. A. Fritz, C. Hof, H. Kreft, S. Normand, J. S. Cabral, E. Szekely, W. Thuiller, M. Wikelski, D. N. Karger (2020) Macroecology in the age of Big Data – Where to go from here? Journal of Biogeography 47: 1-12.  https://doi.org/10.1111/jbi.13633