Brock researcher finds that toucans use their amazing beaks to deal with the heat

The Campaign for a Bold New Brock

Brock researcher finds that toucans use their amazing beaks to deal with the heat

July 23, 2009

A new scientific study using the one of the world’s most colourful and exotic birds may lead to a better understanding of how animals respond to temperature change.

In a new article published in the journal Science, Brock University researcher Glenn Tattersall studies how the tropical bird species toco toucans respond to temperature variations, in an effort that could help us better understand how animals cope with climate change.

“An elephant uses its ears to dump heat,” said Tattersall. “Mice use their tails. Rabbits use their ears. Toucans use their bills.”

He said a toucan’s bill is the “thermal window” found in various endotherms — animals capable of releasing or generating sufficient amounts of heat in order to sustain their high body temperature.

Using a thermal camera, Tattersall and research colleagues in Brazil produced striking images which show that a toucan’s giant bill acts as a heat exchange organ, adapting to temperature change and helping the bird regulate its own body heat.

What they found was that the birds reduce or increase their heat loss by contracting or expanding arteries in their bills.

“These photographs help us see if an animal is heat stressed or not, due to changes in their environment,” said Tattersall, who teaches biology at Brock University in St Catharines/Niagara. “The more we know about how birds adapt to their environment, the better we can focus conservation efforts.

“Understanding that the bird bill can act as a thermal radiator will shed light on the importance of this structure in the evolution of birds in general, and may have implications for how evolutionary biologists interpret how environmental changes have shaped this very important morphological feature.”

The article appears in the July 24 edition of the journal Science.