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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 July 2015

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
During the months of January through March 2014, the research team concluded its first field season at the study site near the village of Ashkam. PhD candidate Michelle Thompson and postdoctoral associate Susie Cunningham collected behavioral and physiological data for three target species maintained in the on-site aviaries. Observations were conducted to establish the temperature-dependence of heat dissipation behaviors. At the same time, surgically-implanted miniature temperature sensitive transmitters were used to continuously monitor birds’ body temperatures during hot weather, using an automated system to collect real-time data. Pilot studies were conducted to assess the feasibility of data-collection techniques being planned during the second field season in late 2014 and early 2015.
Future plans include the visit of Thompson and graduate student Nicholas Pattison to Arizona for six weeks of field work beginning mid-June 2014. In addition, a project presentation is being prepared for the 15th Congress of the International Society for Behavioral Ecology, to be held in New York City. A six-month field study in South Africa is planned to begin in October 2014.
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