Beating the heat – the Australian way

Written by Shangzhe Xie, PhD Candidate, The University of Adelaide

for the National Science Communication Challenge

Budgerigars in the desert (Image: Jim Bendon flickr.com)

Budgerigars in the desert (Image: Jim Bendon flickr.com)

Australian birds are under increasing threat from the effects of climate change.

Extreme climate events like heat waves are putting bird populations at risk.

As temperatures continue to rise with climate change, sensitive groups of birds will be challenged.

A research report from 2013 analysed the effects of climate change on birds in Australia.

The limitations acknowledged in the analysis included the physiological sensitivities of individual species to extreme climate events such as heat waves.

These these events are clearly a threat to the survival of certain bird groups.

This threat is already upon us. Die-offs of large numbers of birds during heat waves in Australia and overseas have been increasingly reported in the media.

Our research involves physiological measurements of different bird species to investigate the highest temperature each species can tolerate, and how they accomplish that.

We are also completing behavioural studies using both direct observations of birds in the Adelaide Zoo aviaries, as well as using accelerometer loggers on birds in the wild. This allows us to investigate different behavioural strategies of birds to help them survive during heat waves.

Exposure of birds to temperatures similar to that during summer/heat waves in a controlled manner, is enabling us to investigate their stress (corticosterone and heat shock protein) responses, as well as changes to gene expression, in response to heat.

Birds are dying from the heat but the physiological reason why is currently unknown

The results of our project will greatly advance our understanding of avian responses to heat and water stress. This information will allow us to produce predictive models that account for differences in body size, phylogeny, diet and natural history.

These models should provide us with insight into how physiological constraints may lead to the rapid restructuring of bird communities. When combined with differences in behavioural adaptations of different families of birds, we will gain insight into how climate change might impact the structure and function of each community in the longer term.

The information gathered will also help zoological institutions design better aviaries to allow captive birds to cope with heat. The costs of climate change adaptation (i.e. management, surveys, captive breeding, land purchases, etc.) for birds are estimated to reach $941 million AUD over the next 50 years.

Parrots, songbirds and pigeons have different ways of beating the heat, but which is the best?

Our project will provide data on genetic sensitivities to heat stress in birds, using model species from the finch, parrot and dove/pigeon families.

The data will contribute to efforts to identify the sensitivities of various bird species to the effects of increased temperatures could, therefore, help focus and prioritize such efforts to the more sensitive bird species.

The overall outcomes of this research will inform natural resource managers by providing risk assessments for species and regions.

Climate change is a global problem and bird communities are likely to be differently impacted by factors such as body size, distributions, dietary guilds, and the availability of free water resources. This research will also help us understand how climate events will modify bird communities and thus the ecosystem services they provide.

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