Heat dissipation capacity influences reproductive performance in an aerial insectivore [RESEARCH ARTICLE]

Simon Tapper, Joseph J. Nocera, and Gary Burness

Climatic warming is predicted to increase the frequency of extreme weather events, which may reduce an individual’s capacity for sustained activity because of thermal limits. We tested whether the risk of overheating may limit parental provisioning of an aerial insectivorous bird in population decline. For many seasonally breeding birds, parents are thought to operate close to an energetic ceiling during the 2–3 week chick-rearing period. The factors determining the ceiling remain unknown, although it may be set by an individual’s capacity to dissipate body heat (the heat dissipation limitation hypothesis). Over two breeding seasons we experimentally trimmed the ventral feathers of female tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) to provide a thermal window. We then monitored maternal and paternal provisioning rates, nestling growth rates and fledging success. We found the effect of our experimental treatment was context dependent. Females with an enhanced capacity to dissipate heat fed their nestlings at higher rates than controls when conditions were hot, but the reverse was true under cool conditions. Control females and their mates both reduced foraging under hot conditions. In contrast, male partners of trimmed females maintained a constant feeding rate across temperatures, suggesting attempts to match the feeding rate of their partners. On average, nestlings of trimmed females were heavier than controls, but did not have a higher probability of fledging. We suggest that removal of a thermal constraint allowed females to increase provisioning rates, but additionally provided nestlings with a thermal advantage via increased heat transfer during maternal brooding. Our data provide support for the heat dissipation limitation hypothesis and suggest that depending on temperature, heat dissipation capacity can influence reproductive success in aerial insectivores.

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