Oct. 15 (UPI) -- The timing of the moon's light-dark cycle drives not only the nightjar's feeding patterns, but also the time of the bird's migration.
Nightjars are a family of medium-sized nocturnal insectivores found all over the world. The European nightjar, Caprimulgus europeaus, is characterized by its intricately patterned grey and brown plumage. The birds prefer dry, open country with only a scattering of trees and shrubs. They migrate to sub-Saharan Africa for the winter and return to Europe in the spring to breed.
Scientists used a sophisticated GPS tracking system to plot the movement of 39 European nightjars over the course of several weeks. The data showed the birds doubled the amount of time they spent feeding at night when the sky was lit by the moon.
The data showed all of the tracked nightjays simultaneously migrated for 10 days following a full moon. The findings -- detailed this week in the journal PLOS Biology -- proved the lunar cycle has the ability to synchronize migrations across animal populations.
Most studies on migration patterns have focused on the effects of seasonal timing on animal movements, but the latest research suggests other cycles can provide temporal regulation.
Previous studies have shown that timing of one species' migration can influence of the patterns of many other species. It's likely the effect of the lunar cycle on the feeding behavior and migratory patterns of nightjars also influences related animal communities and ecosystems.
Authors of the new study, including researcher Gabriel Norevik and Anders Hedenström of Lund University in Sweden, hope to apply similar research techniques to determine whether the lunar cycle influences the behavior and movements of other nocturnal or crepuscular animals.
"Using miniaturized data-loggers that allowed us to measure individual bird's flight activity throughout their annual cycle we provide a telling example how modern technologies open new doors in the study of animal behavior," researchers wrote.