High summer temperature explains bill size variation in salt marsh sparrows


R. Greenberg, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, Smithsonian Conservarion Biology Inst., National Zoological Park, Washington, DC 20008, USA. E-mail: greenbergr@si.edu


Physiological factors are rarely proposed to account for variation in the morphology of feeding structures. Recently, bird bills have been demonstrated to be important convective and radiant heat sinks. Larger bills have greater surface area than smaller bills and could serve as more effective thermoregulatory organs under hot conditions. The heat radiating function of bills should be more important in open habitats with little shade and stronger convective winds. Furthermore, as a means of dumping heat without increasing water loss through evaporation, bills might play a particularly important thermoregulatory role in heat loss in windy habitat where fresh water is limited. North American salt marshes provide a latitudinal gradient of relatively homogeneous habitat that is windy, open, and fresh-water limited. To examine the potential role of thermoregulation in determining bill size variation among ten species or subspecies of tidal marsh sparrows, we plotted bill size against maximum summer and minimum winter temperatures. Bill surface areas increases with summer temperature, which explained 82–89% of the variance (depending upon sex) when we controlled for genus membership. Latitude alone predicted bill surface area much more poorly than summer temperature, and winter temperatures explained < 10% of the variance in winter bill size. Tidal marsh sparrow bill morphology may, to a large degree, reflect the role of the bill in expelling excess body heat in these unbuffered, fresh-water-limited environments. This new example of Allen's rule reaffirms the importance of physiological constraints on the evolution of vertebrate morphologies, even in bird bills, which have conventionally been considered as products of adaptation to foraging niche.