Life on the edge: do body size and drinking dependency influence how birds deal with the heat in South Africa's most extreme desert?

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

Climate change-induced increases in air temperature pose a substantial risk to birds inhabiting arid environments. Terrestrial endotherms, such as birds, can respond to high temperatures by moving to cooler microsites, increasing heat dissipation behaviour and/or suppressing activity. Previous studies have suggested that larger bird species may have a greater suppression of activity (e.g. foraging) than smaller species at high air temperatures. However, this body mass effect may be confounded by drinking behaviour, since different species have diverse drinking ecologies. Using four species of lark that inhabit the Tankwa Karoo National Park, I investigated whether foraging activity and other heat-influenced behaviours were influenced by body mass or drinking behaviour when comparisons were constrained within a single family. These lark species were: Red-capped Lark (24 g), Spikedheeled Lark (25 g), Karoo Lark (29 g) and Large-billed Lark (45 g). There was a two-fold difference in body mass between the lightest (Red-capped Lark) and the heaviest (Large-billed Lark). Moreover, two of these lark species drink surface water (drinking larks; Red-capped and Large-billed Lark) and two do not (non-drinking larks; Spike-heeled and Karoo Lark). I also collected data on other passerines present in the Tankwa Karoo for comparison to the larks. Black bulb thermometers were used to measure the thermal landscape and a combination of instantaneous scan samples and focal observations to record bird behaviour. Black bulb temperatures were as much as 8.16 °C cooler in shaded than in sunny locations. Similarly, black bulb temperatures were as much as 8.02 °C cooler off the ground than on the ground. The results from scan sample data showed limited support that foraging was negatively correlated (although non-significant) with mass between lark species as temperatures increased; however, data from focal observations suggested larks that obtain all water from food had a greater reduction in foraging as temperatures increase than larks that drink free surface water. Within scan samples, heat dissipation and shade-seeking behaviour appeared to be more strongly influenced by whether the species drinks free surface water or not than by differences in body mass. Furthermore, drinking larks dissipate heat at lower temperatures and seek shade at higher temperatures than non-drinking larks. Foraging intensity was higher in the sunny microsites as compared to shaded microsites for all species, suggesting that drinking larks might gain an energetic benefit due to increased heat tolerance. Therefore, non-drinking species may be vulnerable to foraging-thermoregulation trade-offs under climate change. However, ongoing drying trends in the Tankwa Karoo and reduced availability of surface water may make drinking species more vulnerable to climate change in the future than non-drinking species.