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Partnerships for enhanced engagement in research (PEER) SCIENCE
Cycle 2 (2012 Deadline)

Climate change and arid-zone birds: validation of a behavioral index for assessing species’ relative vulnerabilities to rising temperatures

PI: Andrew McKechnie (University of Pretoria)
U.S. Partner: Blair Wolf (University of New Mexico)
Project Dates: August 2013 to March 2016

South Africa Partnership Picture 1
An aviary under assembly at Murray Game Ranch, an 11,000–hectare property outside the town of Askham in the Northern Cape province of South Africa. Photo courtesy: Dr. McKechnie.
Predicting the impacts of climate change on birds is one of the greatest challenges currently facing ornithologists. A priori, bird communities inhabiting hot desert environments may be expected to be among the vulnerable to rising temperatures, on account of the thermal stresses and unpredictable water and food resources encountered in these habitats. Increasing temperatures in hot deserts are predicted to cause bird range changes, but at present we have no capacity to predict which species will respond first or when the response will occur. Making such predictions requires a mechanistic understanding of the links between the physical/environmental characteristics of habitats and organismal performance. The physiological research needed to elucidate these links requires time-consuming and intensive study of individual species, making this approach generally unsuitable for anything more than a small subset of the species that make up arid-zone bird communities. The research to be carried out as part of this PEER Science project seeks to validate a behavioral index of vulnerability to heat stress in birds inhabiting hot desert environments. Dr. McKechnie and his team will test predictions that relate heat dissipation behaviors to underlying changes in body temperature and hydration status in model species that vary in terms of the relationship between environmental temperature and heat dissipation behaviors. The over-arching aim of this research is essentially to develop a rapid assessment tool, whereby the relative vulnerabilities of birds making up arid-zone communities to more frequent and severe heat waves can be assessed largely on the basis of behavioral observations. The development of such a rapid assessment tool will mean that the species most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change can be identified in any desert environment, anywhere in the world, on the basis of readily collectable behavioral data.
This project is directly relevant to USAID’s Environment and Global Climate Change focus area. It relates to aspects of the Global Climate Change component (helping conservationists and other environmental stake-holders “prepare for and respond to changes in climate”) as well as the Conserving Biodiversity component. Birds provide a host of vital ecosystem services, including pollination, seed dispersal, and insect pest control, and the identification of those avian taxa most vulnerable to rising temperatures has far-reaching implications for predicting how climate change will affect arid-zone ecosystems and the human communities that depend on them. This project is focused on a global scale, and although the researchers will work in one specific desert (the Kalahari of southern Africa), the outcomes of this research will be applicable globally. This project will also provide opportunities to train several students, with an emphasis on recruiting students from historically disadvantaged sectors of the South African population. Moreover, this research will strengthen links between South African institutions and their U.S. counterparts and will pave the way for future collaborative research in related fields. Even though this study will focus on birds inhabiting desert habitats, the researchers are using desert systems as a “proving ground” for a conceptual framework that should be able to predict climate change impacts among birds inhabiting other biomes, including tropical forests.
Summary of Recent Activities
This period saw the start of the project’s second six-month field season. Michelle Thompson (PhD student) has been based at the field site near Askham, Northern Cape province since early October 2014. During this time, she established captive populations of three of the study species listed in the original proposal, namely Laughing Dove, Namaqua Dove and Cape Glossy Starling in the aviaries constructed during the first (2013-14) field season. Behavioral data necessary to calculate HD50 values was gathered as well as blood samples and basic body temperature data. Due to equipment issues, she will return in the first quarter of 2015 to collect more data. Also during the reporting period, Nicholas Pattinson (BSc Honors student) completed his analysis of the behavioral data collected in Arizona during June-July 2014, submitted his research report, and graduated with his BSc Honors degree in Zoology. The report will form the basis for a manuscript to be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal during the course of 2015.

The team asked for, and received a no cost extension to their project and, in the coming months, they will complete data collection for aviary populations of Laughing Dove, Namaqua Dove, Cape Glossy Starling, and White-browed Sparrow-weaver during the second half of the current field season (January – March 2015). By the end of this period the team will have data for seven species. The team will also construct a vacuum line for the separation of water from blood samples by cryogenic vacuum distillation which will allow for the processing of all samples from field season analyses for the estimation of total body water via isotope dilution. The results will be presented at the Zoological Society of Southern Africa annual meeting and be incorporated into a paper describing the correlations between the mean body temperature of individual birds and their dominance status. This was an unexpected pattern that emerged during the first field season, and has interesting implications for understanding the physiological consequences of captivity on birds.

2-181_Michelle Pattison doing fieldwork in AZ2-181_Fieldwork in AZ2-181_Nicolas Pattinson doing fieldwork in AZ
Michelle and Nicholas discovering various Arizona desert species during their behavioral data collection fieldwork in Arizona, July 2014. Photo courtesy: Dr. McKechnie.
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