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sizeable research endeavour involving collaborations with local and international ornithologists, and
has already seen several cohorts of students and postdoctoral fellows exploring the ways in which rising temperatures will have an impact on birds living in the arid zones of southern Africa, Australia and North America.
Professor Andrew McKechnie, Head of the Department of Zoology and Entomology at UP,
leads the physiological aspects of the Hot Birds research programme. Much of this work has examined avian thermoregulation in the heat, and the thermoregulatory mechanisms that permit desert birds to avoid lethal heat stress during extremely
hot weather. This work has formed the basis of a highly productive collaboration between UP and the University of New Mexico, and during 2016 led to a continental-scale assessment of the dehydration risk North American desert birds will face because of the warming predicted for the 21st century.
The behavioural component of the Hot Birds
Project is steered by Dr Susie Cunningham of the Percy FitzPatrick Institute at the University of Cape Town. Many of the impacts of climate change will
be manifested through subtle but consequential changes in the ability of birds to obtain sufficient food for themselves and, when breeding, for their chicks. These effects of high temperatures only become apparent through careful, intensive study of how avian behaviour changes on very hot days.
Some of the most novel and exciting research emanating from the Hot Birds Project has taken place at the interface between physiology and behaviour. For instance, in 2013 the team received a grant from the USA’s National Science Foundation to develop a conceptual framework for rapid assessments of how vulnerability to climate change varies among species making up desert bird communities. This work led
to a current project where Matthew Noakes, a PhD student at UP, used outdoor aviaries to translocate birds from cooler areas to the Kalahari in order to test hypotheses about their capacity to handle hotter conditions than they currently experience.
Erecting aviaries in the Kalahari.
A global partnership
During 2016, the Hot Birds Project involved collaboration between UP and several local and international universities: the University of Cape Town and the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa; the Universities of New Mexico, Nevada and Massachusetts in the United States; the University of Regina in Canada; and the Universities of Western Australia and Adelaide in Australia.
Science, conservation and management
Several aspects of the research undertaken by the Hot Birds team
concern issues related to conservation and management. For
instance, isotopic tracers have been used to elucidate how birds
use isolated waterholes in desert landscapes. Members of the
team have also investigated the effects of shade availability on
drinking behaviour in hot weather, information that is potentially
valuable in the context of managing arid areas in ways that
would mitigate the impact of climate change on birds and other
animals. Andrew McKechnie
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Andrew McKechnie

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