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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
 
In late July of this year, Michelle Thompson (PhD student) and Nicholas Pattinson (BSc Honors student) successfully completed their field work  with their U.S. partner Prof. Blair Wolf in Arizona. As planned, Michelle and Nicholas presented their project at the 15th International Behavioral Ecology Congress, which took place July 31 – August 4, 2014 in New York.  The behavioral data collected during their U.S. visit in Arizona is currently being analyzed and a manuscript is being drafted. Activities during the remainder of the reporting period involve preparations for the second field season (October 2014 - March 2015) at the study site in the Kalahari Desert near the town of Askham. The project team ordered transmitters and data loggers needed for the field work which commenced in early October. Michelle Thompson traveled to the field site and began catching birds for the experimental work planned for this year. Ten Namaqua Doves, ten Cape Turtle Doves, and ten Cape Glossy Starlings were caught and implanted with transmitters. The second field season will involve measuring body temperatures and total body water in captive populations of at least six species in the aviaries at their study site.

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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