Mapping evaporative water loss in desert passerines reveals an expanding threat of lethal dehydration

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Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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National Academy of Sciences


University of Cape Town

Extreme high environmental temperatures produce a variety of consequences for wildlife, including mass die-offs. Heat waves are increasing in frequency, intensity, and extent, and are projected to increase further under climate change. However, the spatial and temporal dynamics of die-off risk are poorly understood. Here, we examine the effects of heat waves on evaporative water loss (EWL) and survival in five desert passerine birds across the southwestern United States using a combination of physiological data, mechanistically informed models, and hourly geospatial temperature data. We ask how rates of EWL vary with temperature across species; how frequently, over what areas, and how rapidly lethal dehydration occurs; how EWL and die-off risk vary with body mass; and how die-off risk is affected by climate warming. We find that smaller-bodied passerines are subject to higher rates of mass-specific EWL than larger-bodied counterparts and thus encounter potentially lethal conditions much more frequently, over shorter daily intervals, and over larger geographic areas. Warming by 4 °C greatly expands the extent, frequency, and intensity of dehydration risk, and introduces new threats for larger passerine birds, particularly those with limited geographic ranges. Our models reveal that increasing air temperatures and heat wave occurrence will potentially have important impacts on the water balance, daily activity, and geographic distribution of arid-zone birds. Impacts may be exacerbated by chronic effects and interactions with other environmental changes. This work underscores the importance of acute risks of high temperatures, particularly for small-bodied species, and suggests conservation of thermal refugia and water sources.