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Flexibility in metabolic rate in a small Afrotropical bird Zosterops virens.

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The scientific literature contains hundreds of studies on avian basal metabolic rate (BMR), many of which assumed that BMR was fixed for each species. Yet those from the last few decades have shown avian BMR to be a flexible trait, changing temporarily and reversibly in response to numerous environmental variables. Given that birds from lower latitudes are relatively understudied compared with temperate and Holarctic species, and that seasonal trends in BMR of southern hemisphere birds are not well understood, we looked at seasonal variation in BMR of a small Afrotropical bird, the Cape white-eye (Zosterops virens), over two years, and found that small birds may reverse the direction and amplitude of seasonal change between years. We also looked at circannual rhythm in avian resting metabolism (RMR), and found that peaks and troughs in resting metabolic rate (RMR) may not necessarily correspond with peaks and troughs in ambient temperature, suggesting that some of the confusion regarding the direction and magnitude of seasonal change in avian BMR may be caused by timing of seasonal measurements. Since we were using captive birds for my work, and since captivity may have an effect on avian BMR, we compared the BMR of freshly wild-caught birds with that of long-term captives housed in outdoor aviaries. The captive birds had higher BMR, giving weight to the argument that some physiological data of captive birds should not be used as representative of wild conspecifics, however the direction of seasonal change was similar in freshly wild-caught and long-term captive birds. Along the same vein, acclimation to laboratory conditions, experimental procedure, and different thermal environments, may also affect avian BMR, and thus before we started the final experiment, Cape white-eyes were acclimated to two different thermal regimes, with no change in RMR over an eight-week period, although there was an increase in body mass over the first three weeks, presumably due to the captive diet being of higher quality than a wild one. These results suggested that in some instances, small birds that are freshly wild-caught may not need to be acclimated in terms of their metabolism, before respirometry trials begin. Finally, given that anthropogenic climate change is anticipated to eclipse all other threats to biodiversity, and since many current predictive models pay no heed to metabolic flexibility of birds, we investigated the effect of a 4°C increase in housing temperature on resting metabolism of the Cape white-eye. This temperature increase is equivalent to that predicted for the range of this species by 2080, and therefore gives an indication of the effect of a sustained increase in mean surface air temperature. The results showed only a marginal difference in various metabolic parameters, suggesting that these birds may cope with the mean temperature increase predicted for their range in the coming decades. Together, these results highlight the importance of considering phenotypic flexibility when studying avian resting or basal metabolic rate. This has special implications for seasonal studies that implicitly assume that summer and winter measurements provide snapshots of the maximum and minimum RMR of which birds are capable, and for comparative studies, which may incorporate metabolic data from both wild and captive populations, or from study birds that were acclimated for different periods.


Ph. D. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg 2014.


Birds--Physiology., Birds -Adaptation., Zosterops--Physiology--South Africa., Theses -- Ecology.