1. The rate at which free-living animals can expend energy is limited but the causes of this limitation are not well understood. Theoretically, energy expenditure may be intrinsically limited by physiological properties of the animal constraining its capacity to process energy. Alternatively, the limitation could be set extrinsically by the amount of energy available in the environment or by a fitness trade-off in terms of reduced future survival associated with elevated metabolism.
2. We measured daily energy expenditure (DEE) using the doubly labelled water method in chick-rearing black-legged kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla) at a study site close to the northern limit of their breeding range over 5 years. We measured breeding success, foraging trip duration and diet composition as proxies of resource availability during these years and estimated the probability of parent kittiwakes to return to the colony in relation to their energy expenditure in order to determine whether kittiwakes adjust their DEE in response to variation in prey availability and whether elevated DEE is associated with a decrease in adult survival.
3. We found that DEE was strikingly similar across all five study years. There was no evidence that energy expenditure was limited by resource availability that varied considerably among study years. Furthermore, there was no evidence of a negative effect of DEE on adult return rate, which does not support the hypothesis of a survival cost connected to elevated energy expenditure.
4. The additional lack of variation in DEE with respect to ambient temperature, brood size or between sexes suggests that kittiwakes at a time of peak energy demands may operate close to an intrinsic metabolic ceiling independent of extrinsic factors.