Environment, behavior and physiology: do birds use barometric pressure to predict storms?

Wildlife Biology Program, The University of Montana, 32 Campus Drive, Missoula, MT 59812, USA.
Journal of Experimental Biology (Impact Factor: 3). 06/2013; 216(Pt 11):1982-90. DOI: 10.1242/jeb.081067
Source: PubMed

ABSTRACT Severe storms can pose a grave challenge to the temperature and energy homeostasis of small endothermic vertebrates. Storms are accompanied by lower temperatures and wind, increasing metabolic expenditure, and can inhibit foraging, thereby limiting energy intake. To avoid these potential problems, most endotherms have mechanisms for offsetting the energetic risks posed by storms. One possibility is to use cues to predict oncoming storms and to alter physiology and behavior in ways that make survival more likely. Barometric pressure declines predictably before inclement weather, and several lines of evidence indicate that animals alter behavior based on changes in ambient pressure. Here we examined the effects of declining barometric pressure on physiology and behavior in the white-crowned sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys. Using field data from a long-term study, we first evaluated the relationship between barometric pressure, storms and stress physiology in free-living white-crowned sparrows. We then manipulated barometric pressure experimentally in the laboratory and determined how it affects activity, food intake, metabolic rates and stress physiology. The field data showed declining barometric pressure in the 12-24 h preceding snowstorms, but we found no relationship between barometric pressure and stress physiology. The laboratory study showed that declining barometric pressure stimulated food intake, but had no effect on metabolic rate or stress physiology. These data suggest that white-crowned sparrows can sense and respond to declining barometric pressure, and we propose that such an ability may be common in wild vertebrates, especially small ones for whom individual storms can be life-threatening events.

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    • "Further work with longer-term experimental manipulations of environmental cues may shed light on the relative importance of such cues on migratory and stopover behaviour. It is now clear that birds can sense changes in air pressure (Kreithen & Keeton 1974; Breuner et al. 2013; this study). However, the sensory and perceptual mechanisms of this ability require further study. "
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    ABSTRACT: Correlational evidence suggests that animals may use changes in barometric pressure to predict or respond to changes in weather. Birds adjust the timing of migratory flights and migratory restlessness in response to changing weather, and they make facultative movements in response to storms during winter and breeding. Using the pressure chamber of a hypobaric climatic wind tunnel we tested the responses of white-throated sparrows, Zonotrichia albicollis, to experimental changes in air pressure alone, or air pressure and temperature in combination. Sparrows in wintering (short-day) condition were exposed to gradual changes in pressure/temperature at dawn that simulated large but realistic high- and low-pressure weather systems. During a drop in pressure, birds approached their food cup more quickly and moved more often. There was no effect of increasing pressure and no additional effects of temperature change. Sparrows in spring migratory condition (photostimulated) were exposed to pressure/temperature changes in the evening. Decreases in temperature resulted in less migratory restlessness during the first hour of night, but there was no additional effect of pressure changes. These experimental results indicate that white-throated sparrows can facultatively adjust their behaviour in direct response to changing barometric pressure and temperature.
    Animal Behaviour 12/2013; 86(6):1285–1290. DOI:10.1016/j.anbehav.2013.09.033 · 3.07 Impact Factor
  • Journal of Experimental Biology 05/2013; 216(11):i-i. DOI:10.1242/jeb.088740 · 3.00 Impact Factor
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    ABSTRACT: Prevailing abiotic conditions may positively or negatively impact insects at both the individual and population levels. For example while moderate rainfall and wind velocity may provide conditions that favour development, as well as movement within and between habitats, high winds and heavy rains can significantly decrease life expectancy. There is some evidence that insects adjust their behaviours associated with flight, mating and foraging in response to changes in barometric pressure. We studied changes in different mating behaviours of three taxonomically unrelated insects, the curcurbit beetle, Diabrotica speciosa (Coleoptera), the true armyworm moth, Pseudaletia unipuncta (Lepidoptera) and the potato aphid, Macrosiphum euphorbiae (Hemiptera), when subjected to natural or experimentally manipulated changes in atmospheric pressure. In response to decreasing barometric pressure, male beetles exhibited decreased locomotory activity in a Y-tube olfactometer with female pheromone extracts. However, when placed in close proximity to females, they exhibited reduced courtship sequences and the precopulatory period. Under the same situations, females of the true armyworm and the potato aphid exhibited significantly reduced calling behaviour. Neither the movement of male beetles nor the calling of armyworm females differed between stable and increasing atmospheric pressure conditions. However, in the case of the armyworm there was a significant decrease in the incidence of mating under rising atmospheric conditions, suggesting an effect on male behaviour. When atmospheric pressure rose, very few M. euphorbiae oviparae called. This was similar to the situation observed under decreasing conditions, and consequently very little mating was observed in this species except under stable conditions. All species exhibited behavioural modifications, but there were interspecific differences related to size-related flight ability and the diel periodicity of mating activity. We postulate that the observed behavioral modifications, especially under decreasing barometric pressure would reduce the probability of injury or death under adverse weather conditions.
    PLoS ONE 10/2013; 8(10):e75004. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0075004 · 3.53 Impact Factor