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Rapid Global Warming is Driving Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbills to Local Extinction – Sci-News.com

In a study published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, a team of scientists in South Africa assessed the effects of air temperature and drought on the breeding output of southern yellow-billed hornbills (Tockus leucomelas) in the Kalahari Desert.

The southern yellow-billed hornbill (Tockus leucomelas), adult female, in Mapungubwe National Park, South Africa. Image credit: Derek Keats / CC BY 2.0.

The southern yellow-billed hornbill (Tockus leucomelas), adult female, in Mapungubwe National Park, South Africa. Image credit: Derek Keats / CC BY 2.0.

Global heating is exacerbating the harsh conditions associated with arid environments by elevating average air temperatures and increasing the frequency and intensity of heatwaves and drought.

Possible consequences for animals inhabiting arid regions include increased frequency of mass mortality events and disastrous reproductive failures.

However, heatwaves, especially in association with droughts, may also have insidious sublethal effects, including loss of body condition, reduced egg or clutch sizes in birds, reduced provisioning rates and compromised offspring quality, and the foregoing of breeding altogether.

“There is rapidly growing evidence for the negative effects of high temperatures on the behavior, physiology, breeding, and survival of various bird, mammal, and reptile species around the world,” said Dr. Nicholas Pattinson, a researcher at the University of Cape Town.

“For example, heat-related mass die-off events over the period of a few days are increasingly being recorded, which no doubt pose a threat to population persistence and ecosystem function.”

The southern yellow-billed hornbill’s distribution includes most of southern Africa, with a large portion falling within the Kalahari Desert.

Known for its peculiar breeding and nesting strategy, this bird is a socially monogamous species.

Southern yellow-billed hornbills are cavity nesters; the female seals herself into the nest cavity and stays there for an average of 50 days to brood and care for chicks. The only opening is a narrow vertical slit, through which the male feeds the female and chicks.

This type of nesting largely protects from predation, which means that breeding success depends primarily on other factors such as climate and food availability.

For example, yellow-billed hornbills initiate breeding in response to rainfall, which corresponds with the hottest days of the year. This makes it difficult for them to shift breeding dates outside of the hottest periods.

Dr. Pattinson and colleagues studied a population of southern yellow-billed hornbills at Kuruman River Reserve in the southern Kalahari Desert in South Africa between 2008 and 2019.

They collected data from pairs breeding in wooden nest boxes. They looked at the breeding success at broad and fine scales, and analyzed climate trends for the region.

The results showed that breeding output collapsed during the monitoring period due to the increased maximum air temperature.

“During the monitoring period, sub-lethal effects of high temperatures (including compromised foraging, provisioning, and body mass maintenance) reduced the chance of hornbills breeding successfully or even breeding at all,” Dr. Pattinson said.

When comparing the first three seasons (between 2008 and 2011) to the last three (between 2016 and 2019), the researchers found that the average percentage of occupied nest boxes declined from 52% to 12%, nest success (successfully raising and fledging at least one chick) declined from 58% to 17%, and the average of chicks produced per breeding attempt decreased from 1,1 to 0,4.

No successful breeding attempts were recorded above the threshold air temperature of 35.7 degrees Celsius.

Breeding output was negatively correlated with increasing days on which the maximum air temperature exceeded the threshold at which the hornbills displayed heat dissipation behavior and normal breeding and nesting behavior. These effects were present even in non-drought years.

The study shows the fast pace at which the climate crisis is taking place is having severe negative effects for charismatic species over alarmingly short time periods

Current warming predictions at the study site show that the hornbill’s threshold for successful breeding will be exceeded during the entire breeding season by approximately 2027.

“Much of the public perception of the effects of the climate crisis is related to scenarios calculated for 2050 and beyond,” Dr. Pattinson said.

“Yet the effects of the climate crisis are current and can manifest not just within our lifetime, but even over a single decade.”

“Despite no striking large die-off events, our prediction in this study is that southern yellow-billed hornbills could be extirpated from the hottest parts of their range as soon as 2027.”

“Sub-lethal consequences of high temperatures may drive local extinctions by resulting in recruitment failure (i.e. no young animals joining the population) and changes to the ecosystems on which we all depend.”

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Nicholas B. Pattinson et al. Collapse of Breeding Success in Desert-Dwelling Hornbills Evident within a Single Decade. Front. Ecol. Evol, published online May 19, 2022; doi: 10.3389/fevo.2022.842264

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