Zenon Czenze: Hot birds -thermoregulation in heat has co-evolved with drinking behaviour

Dr. Zenon Czenze is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pretoria, soon to begin a Lecturer position at the University of New England in Armidale. Here, Dr. Czenze shares his team’s observations that led to the paper “Regularly-drinking desert birds have greater evaporative cooling capacity and higher heat tolerance limits than non-drinking species.”

Zenon Czenze - In the Kalahari with a hot bird (Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbill)
Zenon Czenze – In the Kalahari with a hot bird (Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbill)

About the paper

What’s your paper about?

We highlight the interconnectivity of physiology and ecology and the trade-off between hyperthermia and dehydration avoidance by examining the link between water dependence, thermal physiology, and movement ecology in birds from the southern African arid zone. This area is home to a high diversity of passerine (particularly lark) and non-passerines species. We found that species that drink free-standing water are capable of larger fractional increases in evaporative water loss than non-drinking species, which confers greater evaporative cooling capacity. This higher cooling capacity in drinking species is correlated with higher heat tolerance limits.

What is the background behind your paper?

It started with an observation that some bird species were conspicuously absent at a water hole despite it being the only free-standing water for kilometres. This led us to wonder how aspects of the thermal physiology of passerines from the southern African arid zone vary with ecological factors like diet and drinking behaviour.

How is your paper new or different from other work in this area?

To the best of our knowledge, ours is the first to directly test for a broad, interspecific effect of drinking behaviour on the thermal physiology and heat tolerance of songbirds.

Does this article raise any new research questions?

We still don’t know whether the observed higher heat tolerance of drinking species is a ubiquitous global pattern. Does this pattern hold true in other arid zones? For non-passerines species? For other taxa?

Who should read your paper?

We hope this article is interesting to both physiologists and ecologists, and specifically for those interested in arid environments. Further, those working to conserve/manage species under threat of climate change may also find this paper useful.

About the research

What is the broader impact of your paper (outside of your specific species/study system)

Zenon Czenze - Grey-backed sparrow-lark (photo by Marc Freeman)
Zenon Czenze – Grey-backed sparrow-lark (photo by Marc Freeman)

We are adding to our knowledge of thermal biology, ecophysiology, behavioural ecology and life history strategies to understand and predict species responses to climate change. Specifically, we looked at how ecological factors like drinking behaviour influence a species’ physiological capacity to deal with high temperatures

Why is it important?

These data will be invaluable as we begin to model the effects of climate change on species’ distribution and survival. A better understanding of the processes affecting birds’ physiological capacities to cope with extreme heat is critical for predicting their responses to higher maximum temperatures and more frequent heat waves, and testing the assumption that birds will not be able to persist in future climates hotter than those they presently occupy.

Did you have any problems setting up the experiment/gathering your data?

Field work always presents challenges to be overcome. In this case, living in tents for two months in a desert during summer helped us to appreciate the birds’ struggle to keep cool!

About The Author

How did you get involved in ecology?

Zenon Czenze - Even in the desert our field lab is always Nova Scotia Strong
Zenon Czenze – Even in the desert our field lab is always Nova Scotia Strong

It all started as a kid growing up in Nova Scotia, Canada. Nova Scotia’s charms, the rugged forests, hidden lakes, and unforgiving coastlines have shaped me in much the same way as the wildlife they support. It’s the reason the flag travels the world with me and, with the recent tragedy in Nova Scotia, it’s on my mind more than ever.  Editor’s Note: Canada experienced the worst mass shooting in the nation’s history on 18-19 April, 2020, where 22 people lost their lives in their Nova Scotia.

What are you currently working on?

I’m currently a member of the Hot Birds Research Project (HBRP), an international team that is interested in  how and why birds are likely to cope – or fail to cope – in a hotter world.

What’s your current position?

I’ve recently accepted a position as a lecturer at the University of New England in Armidale, Australia. Here I’ll be expanding the scope of HBRP by using the same techniques to examine heat tolerance in birds and applying them to bats and other small mammals

What is the best thing about being an ecologist?

Asking questions about and working with animals in their natural habitat.

What is the worst thing about being an ecologist?

The animals don’t care about the questions we’re asking, and generally don’t want to work with us….

Read the paper here and the plain language summary here.

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