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Dehydration risk is associated with reduced nest attendance and hatching success in a cooperatively breeding bird, the southern pied babbler Turdoides bicolor.

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Bourne, Amanda R 
Ridley, Amanda R 
McKechnie, Andrew E 
Spottiswoode, Claire N 
Cunningham, Susan J 


High air temperatures have measurable negative impacts on reproduction in wild animal populations, including during incubation in birds. Understanding the mechanisms driving these impacts requires comprehensive knowledge of animal physiology and behaviour under natural conditions. We used a novel combination of a non-invasive doubly labelled water (DLW) technique, nest temperature data and field-based behaviour observations to test effects of temperature, rainfall and group size on physiology and behaviour during incubation in southern pied babblers Turdoides bicolor, a cooperatively breeding passerine endemic to the arid savanna regions of southern Africa. The proportion of time that clutches were incubated declined as air temperatures increased, a behavioural pattern traditionally interpreted as a benefit of ambient incubation. However, we show that (i) clutches had a <50% chance of hatching when exposed to daily maximum air temperatures of >35.3°C; (ii) pied babbler groups incubated their nests almost constantly (99% of daylight hours) except on hot days; (iii) operative temperatures in unattended nests frequently exceeded 40.5°C, above which bird embryos are at risk of death; (iv) pied babblers incubating for long periods of time failed to maintain water balance on hot days; and (v) pied babblers from incubating groups lost mass on hot days. These results suggest that pied babblers might leave their nests during hot periods to lower the risk of dehydration associated with prolonged incubation at high operative temperatures. As mean air temperatures increase and extreme heat events become more frequent under climate change, birds will likely incur ever greater thermoregulatory costs of incubation, leading to compromised nest attendance and increased potential for eggs to overheat, with implications for nest success and, ultimately, population persistence.



Climate change, cooperative breeding, high temperatures, incubation, parental care, southern pied babbler

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Conserv Physiol

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Oxford University Press (OUP)


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Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BB/J014109/1)
European Research Council (294494)
Australian Research Council BBSRC David Phillips Fellowship British Ornithologists’ Union DST-NRF Centre of Excellence at the FitzPatrick Institute for African Ornithology Oppenheimer Memorial Trust National Research Foundation of South Africa