Hovering in the heat: Effects of environmental temperature on heat regulation in foraging hummingbirds

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At high temperature (greater than 40°C) endotherms experience reduced passive heat dissipation (radiation, conduction and convection) and increased reliance on evaporative heat loss. High temperatures challenge flying birds due to heat produced by wing muscles. Hummingbirds depend on flight for foraging, yet inhabit hot regions. We used infrared thermography to explore how lower passive heat dissipation during flight impacts body-heat management in broad-billed (Cynanthus latirostris, 3.0 g), black-chinned (Archilochus alexandri, 3.0 g), Rivoli’s (Eugenes fulgens, 7.5 g) and blue-throated (Lampornis clemenciae, 8.0 g) hummingbirds in southeastern Arizona and calliope hummingbirds (Selasphorus calliope, 2.6 g) in Montana. Thermal gradients driving passive heat dissipation through eye, shoulder and feet dissipation areas are eliminated between 36 and 40°C. Thermal gradients persisted at higher temperatures in smaller species, possibly allowing them to inhabit warmer sites. All species experienced extended daytime periods lacking thermal gradients. Broad-billed hummingbirds lacking thermal gradients regulated the mean total-body surface temperature at approximately 38°C, suggesting behavioural thermoregulation. Blue-throated hummingbirds were inactive when lacking passive heat dissipation and hence might have the lowest temperature tolerance of the four species. Use of thermal refugia permitted hummingbirds to tolerate higher temperatures, but climate change could eliminate refugia, forcing distributional shifts in hummingbird populations.




Powers, D. R., Langland, K. M., Wethington, S. M., Powers, S. D., Graham, C. H., & Tobalske, B. W. (2017). Hovering in the heat: Effects of environmental temperature on heat regulation in foraging hummingbirds. Royal Society Open Science, 4(12). https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.171056

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