This new piece of research is a product of the Hot Birds team at the Fitz in Cape Town, with Tanja van de Ven (lead author) spending many gruelling hours in the Kalahari heat with fairly complex equipment. The team, and Tanja’s, aim is to investigate how birds cope with rising temperatures using species that already exist in the hard thermal conditions of the Kalahari. One of their papers looked at the impact of heat stress on foraging in pied babblers. However, Tanja’s work focuses on yellow-billed hornbills, a species of bird that nests inside trees, with the female sealing herself into this cavity. This reproductive adaptation is great for protecting your eggs and female from predators but it can limit your ability to control your temperature, as you’re pretty stuck (it also means that the female and chicks are 100% dependent on the male for their nutritional needs – such a cool system for male-female and parent-offspring dynamics!!!).
The obvious feature of this bird, hopefully you have either clicked on the link or already know what a hornbill looks like from your bird knowledge or from childhood exposure to the Lion King, is that they have a massive long bill. The beak of a bird is not just lifeless tissue like finger nails but very much a living structure and as such has a profusion of blood vessels. Just like the thermoregulation that takes place in humans, where capillaries close to the surface are constricted or relaxed to either conserve or radiate heat, hornbills appear to have the same ability with the blood vessels in their beak. As the ambient air temperature increases more blood is pushed into the hornbill’s beak, allowing heat to be lost through radiative heat transfer. This is similar to toucans, as a recent study has found, but in the toucan this process accounts for upto 60% of non-evaporative heat loss compared to just 8% in the hornbill. There are a number of potential reasons for this: the toucans have much larger bills, hornbills have a harder bill (maybe an ecological adaptation to how they forage?) and toucans start dilating their blood vessels at lower temperatures.
This type of research is crucial for understanding how organisms are physiologically adapted to their environment. It enables researchers to better understand the environmental limits that a species may be able to cope with and allow predictions as to the impacts of climate change. It’s also pretty cool too.
van de Ven et al. (2016) Regulation of heat exchange across the hornbill beak: functional similarities with Toucans? PLoS One
Beaks are increasingly recognised as important contributors to avian thermoregulation. Several studies supporting Allen’s rule demonstrate how beak size is under strong selection related to latitude and/or air temperature (Ta). Moreover, active regulation of heat transfer from the beak has recently been demonstrated in a toucan (Ramphastos toco, Ramphastidae), with the large beak acting as an important contributor to heat dissipation. We hypothesised that hornbills (Bucerotidae) likewise use their large beaks for non-evaporative heat dissipation, and used thermal imaging to quantify heat exchange over a range of air temperatures in eighteen desert-living Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills (Tockus leucomelas). We found that hornbills dissipate heat via the beak at air temperatures between 30.7°C and 41.4°C. The difference between beak surface and environmental temperatures abruptly increased when air temperature was within ~10°C below body temperature, indicating active regulation of heat loss. Maximum observed heat loss via the beak was 19.9% of total non-evaporative heat loss across the body surface. Heat loss per unit surface area via the beak more than doubled at Ta > 30.7°C compared to Ta < 30.7°C and at its peak dissipated 25.1 W m-2. Maximum heat flux rate across the beak of toucans under comparable convective conditions was calculated to be as high as 61.4 W m-2. The threshold air temperature at which toucans vasodilated their beak was lower than that of the hornbills, and thus had a larger potential for heat loss at lower air temperatures. Respiratory cooling (panting) thresholds were also lower in toucans compared to hornbills. Both beak vasodilation and panting threshold temperatures are potentially explained by differences in acclimation to environmental conditions and in the efficiency of evaporative cooling under differing environmental conditions. We speculate that non-evaporative heat dissipation may be a particularly important mechanism for animals inhabiting humid regions, such as toucans, and less critical for animals residing in more arid conditions, such as Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills. Alternatively, differences in beak morphology and hardness enforced by different diets may affect the capacity of birds to use the beak for non-evaporative heat loss.