Physiological adaptation in desert birds

Williams, JB., Tieleman, BI. & Williams, J. B., May-2005, In : BioScience. 55, 5, p. 416-425 10 p.

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

We call into question the idea that birds have not evolved unique physiological adaptations to desert environments. The rate at which desert larks metabolize energy is lower than in mesic species within the same family, and this lower rate of living translates into a lower overall energy requirement in the wild. We argue that selection has reduced oxygen consumption at the tissue level under basal conditions for birds living in deserts. We document that total evaporative water loss-the sum of cutaneous water loss (CWL) and respiratory water loss-is reduced in desert birds, and present evidence that changes in CWL are responsible for this pattern. The diminution in CWL is attributable to changes in the lipid structure of the stratum corneum of the skin, the physical barrier to diffusion of water vapor. Finally, we show linkages between physiology and life-history attributes of larks along an aridity gradient, birds from deserts have not only a reduced rate of metabolism but also a small clutch size and slow nestling development. Hence, attributes of physiology are correlated with traits that directly affect reproductive success. Our hope is that we will prompt students to question the notion that birds do not possess physiological adaptations to the desert environment, and raise the specter of doubt about "preadaptation" in birds living in deserts.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)416-425
Number of pages10
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - May-2005


  • desert birds, basal metabolism, field metabolism, evolutionary physiology, cutaneous water loss, EVAPORATIVE WATER-LOSS, STRATUM-CORNEUM, ARABIAN DESERT, HOOPOE-LARKS, ENERGY, BARRIER, ECONOMY, LIFE, PERSPECTIVE, RESISTANCE

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