Article image

Tropical birds can handle climate variability

In a new study by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the resilience of tropical birds to climate variations emerges as a remarkable finding.

By focusing on “warm-blooded” endotherms within tropical regions, the research challenges long-held beliefs that such animals are ill-equipped to handle significant temperature fluctuations.

Understanding climate variability and its impact

The Earth’s climate zones – polar, temperate, and tropical – are defined by their unique temperature profiles. Animals in each zone have evolved to survive within specific thermal conditions.

However, many believed that tropical species, particularly ectotherms like amphibians and reptiles, could not endure significant temperature variations.

Contrary to this belief, the research team at Illinois has demonstrated that tropical birds exhibit a remarkable capacity to adapt to varying thermal environments.

Birds in the Neotropics

Professor Emeritus Jeff Brawn and postdoctoral researcher Henry Pollock investigated the climate variability hypothesis. This theory suggests that organisms unaccustomed to wide temperature fluctuations throughout their evolutionary history might struggle to adapt to such changes.

The findings, however, highlight tropical birds as an exception. “We tested the climate variability hypothesis, which predicts that organisms can’t handle variation because they haven’t seen it over evolutionary time,” Brawn explained. “That may be true for ectotherms, but the evidence is just not there yet for birds in the Neotropics. Now we know they’re able to handle it.”

In his research, Pollock captured 89 species of birds in Panama. He used respirometry to measure their metabolic rates across different temperatures, thereby evaluating their temperature tolerance.

Pollock also utilized long-term weather data from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute to study temperature variations across forest microclimates.

Significance for tropical bird species and conservation

The study’s findings underscore the importance of conservation efforts in the face of climate change, particularly in tropical regions.

“The Neotropics alone are home to 40% of the world’s bird species. Anyone who cares about birds should care about what’s happening in the tropics,” noted Brawn. Tropical birds are key to forest ecological balance and insect control.

Additionally, the research reveals birds’ resilience against habitat loss, including deforestation, which threatens many species, including insect-eating understory birds. Contrary to earlier beliefs attributing declines to narrow temperature tolerances, this study offers a new perspective.

Birds and climate resilience

The study, while centered on thermal tolerance, also considers the broader complexities of climate change, including solar radiation, humidity, and precipitation.

“There’s very little good news for tropical birds these days, but it’s comforting that we’ve eliminated one factor as to what may go wrong with climate change. It’s actually not a surprise; birds are very adaptable,” said Pollock.

The research demonstrates the ability of tropical birds to withstand temperature shifts and signals hope for climate change resilience. It highlights the critical need for ongoing conservation and deeper investigation into the varied impacts of environmental changes on tropical ecosystems.

More about tropical birds

Tropical birds, with their vibrant colors and diverse behaviors, are among the most fascinating subjects in the animal kingdom. Here are some interesting facts about them:

Colors for communication

Many tropical birds display a wide range of bright colors. These colors can serve multiple purposes, from attracting mates to warding off predators. For example, the plumage of male birds is often more vibrant than that of females, used to attract attention during mating rituals.

Remarkable adaptations

Tropical birds have evolved a variety of unique adaptations to survive in their environments. The toucan, for example, has a large, colorful beak that is surprisingly light due to its hollow structure. This adaptation helps it to feed on a variety of tropical fruits and insects while maintaining flight efficiency.

Diverse diets

The diets of tropical birds are as varied as their species. While some birds, like parrots, have strong beaks to crack nuts and seeds, others, such as hummingbirds, have long, slender beaks perfect for extracting nectar from flowers. The diversity in their diets reflects the rich biodiversity of their tropical habitats.

Complex vocalizations

Tropical birds are known for their complex and often melodious calls. Birds like the lyrebird can mimic natural and artificial sounds from their environment. These vocalizations play a critical role in communication, especially during mating seasons and in establishing territory.

Migration patterns

Some tropical birds are migratory, traveling hundreds or even thousands of miles between breeding and wintering grounds. This includes species like certain types of warblers, which may spend the breeding season in temperate regions and winter in the tropics.

Social structures

Many tropical birds live in complex social structures. For instance, African grey parrots have been observed to form strong social bonds and can exhibit behaviors indicative of a high level of intelligence, such as using tools and solving puzzles.

The full study is published in the journal Ecology.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates. 

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day