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Avian thermoregulation in the heat: is evaporative cooling more economical in nocturnal birds? [RESEARCH ARTICLE]

Ryan S. O’Connor, Ben Smit, William A. Talbot, Alexander R. Gerson, R. Mark Brigham, Blair O. Wolf, and Andrew E. McKechnie

Evaporative cooling is a prerequisite for avian occupancy of hot, arid environments, and is the only avenue of heat dissipation when air temperatures (Ta) exceed body temperature (Tb). Whereas diurnal birds can potentially rehydrate throughout the day, nocturnal species typically forgo drinking between sunrise and sunset. We hypothesized that nocturnal birds have evolved reduced rates of evaporative water loss (EWL) and more economical evaporative cooling mechanisms compared to diurnal species, permitting nocturnal species to tolerate extended periods of intense heat without becoming lethally dehydrated. We used phylogenetically-informed regressions to compare EWL and evaporative cooling efficiency (ratio of evaporative heat loss [EHL] and metabolic heat production [MHP]; EHL/MHP) among nocturnal and diurnal birds at high Ta. We analyzed variation in three response variables: 1) slope of EWL at Ta between 40 and 46°C, 2) EWL at Ta=46°C, and 3) EHL/MHP at Ta=46°C. Nocturnality emerged as a weak, negative predictor, with nocturnal species having slightly shallower slopes and reduced EWL compared to diurnal species of similar mass. In contrast, nocturnal activity was positively correlated with EHL/MHP, indicating a greater capacity for evaporative cooling in nocturnal birds. However, our analysis also revealed conspicuous differences among nocturnal taxa. Caprimulgids and Australian-owlet nightjars had shallower slopes and reduced EWL compared to similarly-sized diurnal species, whereas owls had EWL rates comparable to diurnal species. Consequently, our results did not unequivocally demonstrate more economical cooling among nocturnal birds. Owls predominately select refugia with cooler microclimates, but the more frequent and intense heat waves forecast for the 21st century may increase microclimate temperatures and the necessity for active heat dissipation, potentially increasing owls’ vulnerability to dehydration and hyperthermia.

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