Adaptive Re-Use, Puffin Style


Tufted Puffin. Photo: Tom Ingram/Audubon Photography Awards

Thanks to Audubon Magazine we start 2020 with a short story about an adaptation that is not just pretty, but practical in more than one way:

Those Big Orange Bills Also Help Puffins Stay Cool After a Workout

Good for more than just attracting a mate, the clownish feature appears to keep the subpar fliers from overheating.

The puffin’s iconic orange bill might be its most recognizable feature, but it’s also quite functional, serving the charismatic seabird in all avenues of life. The bill’s large volume makes it a hefty food carrier, and its ultraviolet glow amps up puffins’ sex appeal. Now, scientists have identified yet another use of this dramatically curved bill: staying cool.

In a study published last month in the Journal of Experimental Biology, scientists found that big bills help the Tufted Puffin release excess body heat after an energetically demanding flight. This ability to dissipate heat has previously been studied in birds that live in warm climates, such as the Toco Toucan and the Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill. But while those birds use the numerous blood vessels in their jumbo-size beaks to keep from overheating in hot temperatures, the Tufted Puffin uses its beak to cool down after a high-intensity workout. Just like humans sweat, birds also need a way to maintain functional body temperatures.

“The puffins work exceptionally hard when flying, so this got us thinking about the potential role of the bill in dissipating heat,” says Kyle Elliott, an ornithology professor at McGill University and one of the study’s researchers. “When flying, they’re like a 100-watt lightbulb—that’s how hot they are—so they have to be able to dissipate that heat.”

Until now, no one knew that birds found in colder habitats, like Tufted Puffins in Alaska, use their beaks to regulate their internal heat. “It’s fascinating that nobody had yet looked at how large beaks work in colder climates,” says Tanja van de Ven, a researcher at South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand who conducted a similar study on hornbills. “I’m pretty sure this is the first study that actually looks at the relationship between size of beak and cost of flight.”

To do the research, Elliott and his research team spent nearly one month in the summer of 2018 on Middleton Island, Alaska, observing Tufted Puffins on their nesting grounds. They recorded the birds with a thermal imaging camera, which visualizes heat in the form of infrared light, to capture bill and body surface temperatures; heat glows brightly in the resulting images. For each bird that landed within the camera’s field of view, the scientists took images approximately every two minutes until the bird flew away or entered a burrow. They ended up capturing more than 170 images of 50 independent landings…

Read the whole article here. 

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