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Hot birds in the hot seat
22 February 2018

Prof Andrew McKechnie of the Department of Zoology and Entomology was recently awarded the South African Research Chair in Conservation Physiology. The Chair is hosted by the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa and co-hosted by the University of Pretoria (UP).

The Chair will expand on the innovative research in which Prof McKechnie has been involved over the past decade: focusing on conservation physiology and mechanistic approaches to modelling animals’ responses to climate change. He has been a principal investigator in the Hot Birds Research Project, a collaboration between UP and the Percy FitzPatrick Institute, University of Cape Town, since its inception in 2009. The project examines the behaviour and physiology of desert birds to understand and predict their responses to climate change.

There is no denying that climate change is ongoing and that the effects are significant. Deserts across the world are heating up drastically and becoming even harsher environments than they have been in the past. This is a good reason to study these environments and, as a wild bird specialist, Prof McKechnie says deserts are the hottest areas wild birds are currently experiencing. Arid environments thus serve as good model systems for understanding the impacts of climate change on animals.

One of his current projects, for example, is looking at the adaptability to rising temperatures of the threatened Red Lark, which is endemic to the Northern Cape. This research is showing that when birds experience multiple hot days in succession, they progressively lose body mass because their foraging efficiency is lowered as a result of the extreme heat. What makes their survival even more precarious is that the extreme heat seems to be affecting their breeding success since there is little evidence of juvenile birds in the area. Prof McKechnie reflects on their breeding patterns with concern: ‘I am beginning to wonder if these larks have bred at all in the last three years.’

Apart from being able to expand current research areas, the Chair enables research in areas previously unexplored to be realised. This not only brings great excitement to Prof McKechnie, but also allows for a better understanding of the effects of climate change and how, inevitably, we are all going to be affected by it.

One such idea he is developing involves an expansion of his research into poultry science to investigate how small-scale, subsistence poultry production systems are affected by rising temperatures. In areas like the Limpopo Valley and the Lowveld of South Africa, summer temperatures regularly reach 40° C, which poses a threat to rural communities raising chickens as a critical source of protein. Global warming can may reduce the reliability of this protein food source, with potentially dire implications for food security.

Research such as this also opens the doors of opportunity for interdisciplinary research by delving into areas other than climate change and conservation physiology, for example the alleviation of poverty and subsistence farming, in response to the social and economic challenges facing the country.

Prof McKechnie is also interested in extending his research from very arid zones to mesic areas, where high humidity can constrain birds’ capacity to lose heat in hot weather. This could potentially extend research to areas beyond the dry Northern Cape to as far as the northern parts of KwaZulu-Natal. In areas like Kosi Bay, humidity is likely to be an overwhelming factor in affecting birds’ responses to higher temperatures. Unlike in dry areas such as the scorching Kalahari where birds can readily lose heat through evaporation, this may not be an option in areas of high humidity.

Aiding his research is the new UP Small Animal Physiological Research Facility, which offers the perfect setting for Prof McKechnie’s work on thermal acclimatisation in birds and other animals. He hopes to establish long-term breeding colonies in this facility to find answers to questions related to phenotypic flexibility, genotypic adaptation and epigenetics. He also plans to incorporate approaches that are more mechanistic and based on an understanding of functional links between organismal physiological tolerances and environmental variables.

This SARChI Chair enables him to be involved in cutting-edge research in conservation physiology and puts him at the forefront of predicting how wildlife will respond to climate change. ‘I am firmly on a good research track, which is where my heart is,’ says Prof McKechnie. One can just wait in anticipation to see what he will do next.

Photo: Michelle Thompson

- Author Louise de Bruin
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Prof Andrew McKechnie