A hummingbird walks into a bar, and orders 300 hamburgers…

At the NAOC last week, I met a graduate student studying hummingbird torpor and just saw her talk (a video, since I missed it due to scheduling issues).  I noticed she had her own website and wanted to put a shout out to her for that.   It’s also an excellent resource for young field biologists looking to get into research, and has lots of personal advice.

Here is a link to her blog site:


You’ll have to read her blog to follow the hamburger reference.  Meanwhile, a hummingbird with a drinking problem:

“Birds surviving the heat” symposium was a great success

Widely publicized heat waves have led to mortality and breeding failure of birds, and mortality of other taxa, including many humans, across the globe. Climate models predict further increased temperatures in addition to altered drought and other severe weather patterns, all of which can exacerbate thermal challenges. With a changing global climate, a major challenge facing scientists is to predict if and how species will survive rising temperatures.

Predicting these events requires models and an understanding of underlying thermal biology.  Mechanistic, process-based models allow us to predict how higher air temperatures and heat waves impact avifauna. Building these models relies on a detailed theoretical understanding of processes related to thermal stress, as well as parameterization with data from varied sources. Birds of arid habitats provide an ideal model system for developing mechanistic models because they face a number of physiological and behavioral constraints related to the avoidance of lethal hyperthermia and maintenance of water balance. These constraints are often manifested as consequential trade-offs affecting survival and reproduction. Recent catastrophic mortality events, most notably in the Australian arid zone, highlight the direct impacts that periods of extremely hot weather can have on desert birds. In addition, recent research has also revealed various more subtle impacts that only become apparent from detailed, species-specific studies, and/or consideration of the chronic effects of hotter daily conditions in addition to more extreme events.

It was for the above reasons that a team of concerned Physiologists assembled at the North American Ornithology Conference this past week (Aug 18, 2016) to participate in the following symposium topic:

“Surviving the heat: integrating physiology, behavior, and morphology to predict population responses to climate change”

Here were the broad topics covered:

Physiological tolerance limits. Predicting climate change impacts on endotherms using physiological tolerance limits is much more complex than it is for ectotherms. This aspect surveyed recent work aimed at quantifying avian heat tolerance and evaporative cooling capacity in a manner that allows for comparative analyses, and examined how these factors vary among biomes at a global scale.

Behavioral trade-offs and constraints as revealed by intensive, species-specific studies. This section focussed on recent work documenting consequential trade-offs between heat dissipation behaviors and foraging / provisioning nestlings, biologically relevant time scales of high temperatures, and the ways in which high temperatures affects social systems, with a focus on cooperative breeders. It also included work aimed at identifying behavioral indices of sensitivity to heat tolerance that can provide the basis for rapid assessments of species’ relative vulnerabilities to thermal stress.

Morphological responses to past and future climatic changes.  Morphological adjustments to climate that facilitate thermoregulation are widespread among birds, though little is known about the capacity for further adaptation in response to ongoing climate change. This aspect surveyed morphological adaptations to climate and discussed the potential for further change, including probable constraints, and consideration of how to incorporate this knowledge into process-based predictive models.

Spatial models. A key aspect of this symposium concerned ways in which species-specific physiological, behavioural, and morphological data could be incorporated into spatial models to predict responses to climate change, with a focus on the probability of extirpation. In addition to the presentations devoted to this topic, there were excellent talks on modeling avian distribution in the context of climate change to provide a backdrop against which to consider ideas from the empirical and theoretical presentations.

The symposium concluded with a 45 minute discussion session, during which future integrative directions were discussed, and short-comings of various approaches identified.  The symposium was well attended and we received excellent feedback from speakers and attendees.   Moreover, the participation of speakers from North America, southern Africa and Australia reflected the global focus of this symposium. Participants and attendees were exposed to novel techniques and analytical approaches presented by some of the world’s authorities.

I tried to get photos over everyone’s title slide (but not posting data or non-twitterable material), but missed a few (including my own!) due to my involvement in introducing speakers.



Names, affiliations, and titles of the speakers’ talks

South Africa

Susie Cunningham, University of Cape Town – Fitness costs of behavioral thermoregulation and threshold temperatures revealed by behavioral data sets

Michelle Thompson, University of Pretoria – Can heat dissipation behaviour be used as an indicator of underlying physiological stress?

Margaux Rat, University of Cape Town – The impact of elevated temperatures on social networks of a communal passerine, the Sociable Weaver Philetairus socius

Krista Oswald – Threats of climate change to a Fynbos-endemic bird: physiological responses show low heat tolerance thresholds irrespective of season in the Cape rockjumper (Chaetops frenatus)

Andrew McKechnie, University of Pretoria – Phylogenetic variation in heat tolerance and evaporative cooling capacity among Kalahari Desert birds

North America

Alex Gerson – Differential use of hyperthermia as a thermoregulatory strategy in birds exposed to high temperature.

Blair Wolf, University of New Mexico – Physiological challenges for desert bird communities in a rapidly warming world

David Luther – Males with larger bills sing at higher rates in a hot and dry environment

Bill Talbot – Surviving the heat: Nocturnal Sonoran Desert birds

Thomas Albright – Mapping lethal dehydration risk in desert birds of the Southwest USA under current and future climates: integrating physiology and microclimate

Ray Danner – Heat limits behavioral performance

Glenn Tattersall – Bills as radiators of body heat

Sekercioglu, Cagan – The effects of climate change on tropical birds



Janet Gardener – Temporal changes in avian body size over the last 50 years are associated with heat dissipation in Australian passerines


Many thanks to the NAOC organisers for allowing us to host this symposium!

Off to DC (again!) for my first Ornithology conference

Too many conferences this year, but it is a year of “firsts” for me.  Tomorrow I head to DC (twice this year), but this time for the North American Ornithological Conference.

NAOC Program.jpg

I’m co-organising the symposium “Surviving the heat: integrating physiology, behaviour, and morphology to predict population responses to climate change” with Blair Wolf, Andrew McKechnie, Susan Cunningham and Ray Danner.  I’ll be talking about my lab’s work on avian thermoregulatory responses.



Generating interest in your science and writing…

Scientists receive pressures from every angle to perform and justify their existence (parents, deans, students, bureaucrats, politicians, you name it..).  One reason for re-vamping my lab website was to keep a chronicle of lab activities as well as provide a more digestible version of our science to the public.  Since our work is sometimes highlighted by science writers and reporters, I had always assumed it was the scientists who had a tough time getting recognised.  Then I read the blog of a Science Writer, Diane Crow, who had contacted me a few months ago, interviewed me about our work on tegus.  She writes about how she tried to pitch her writing to news-outlets.  Sounds similar to a scientist’s challenge to get their work published.


For anyone interested in science writing and the challenges inherent to it, check out Diane’s blog:  http://dianacrowscience.com/543-2/

She gives an excellent and frank account of how a science writer has to make what scientists write interesting and friendly to readers.  Sadly, in the case of the tegu story,  this was a pitch that did not work, but that is one of the reasons why I wanted to post a link to her blog!  We appreciate your work!

Here’s to you Diane!   Keep up the good work and engagement on science!

Wisdom from Wikiup

A few months ago, I received an email from a name familiar to me by reputation and memory: Dr. Bayard Brattstrom. Bayard was known to me by his early work on thermal requirements of amphibians, although he has worked on a huge array of research from the fossils of the La Brea tar pits to the social behaviours in reptiles. He is now retired after a career spent mostly in California (Fullerton). He had contacted me after we published our discovery of endothermy in tegu lizards. I mentioned we would be in Vegas for a conference this July/August and that I would like to visit his Horned Lizard Ranch…I naively thought it would be a short drive from Vegas and that I would spend a few hours in the desert. Instead, Bayard very kindly invited me to stay for a few days to experience the place, so I went to the desert to seek wisdom from the Professor of Wikiup.

Anyhow, what a great experience. Two days of speaking with a herpetologist who was involved with so much research I have always admired. Bayard maintains an extensive personal library of herpetology research, lore, collectibles and memories. His house puts our department to shame in terms of its sheer breadth of literature, and from what I can tell, Bayard is working on 1 or 2 books in his spare time.  I certainly got a number of new ideas for research questions, and for anyone looking for a great desert field site, his lizard ranch is perfectly suited for any avid herpetologist.

I have posted a few images taken from his place here and wanted to thank him for his hospitality! Incidentally, the outside temperatures were 115 to 120F (real units: ~46 to 48oC!).

Hibernation and Thermoregulation Research

I just came back from the International Hibernation Symposium (15th!) from Las Vegas and saw this article about one of our participants.  This is great to read, and helps explain why so many of us are passionate about understanding thermoregulation and hibernation.  Some work is biomedically inspired, some is evolutionarily inspired.  Anyhow, here is a nice article about Dr. Domenico Tupone, one of our colleagues and participants:


Thanks for Dr. Matteo Cerri for sharing this link.