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Proc Biol Sci. 2009 Mar 7;276(1658):961-9. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2008.1277.

No energetic cost of anthropogenic disturbance in a songbird.

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  • 1Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08540, USA.


Anthropogenic or natural disturbances can have a significant impact on wild animals. Therefore, understanding when, how and what type of human and natural events disturb animals is a central problem in wildlife conservation. However, it can be difficult to identify which particular environmental stressor affects an individual most. We use heart rate telemetry to quantify the energy expenditure associated with different types of human-mediated and natural disturbances in a breeding passerine, the white-eyed vireo (Vireo griseus). We fitted 0.5g heart rate transmitters to 14 male vireos and continuously recorded heart rate and activity for two days and three nights on a military installation. We calibrated heart rate to energy expenditure for five additional males using an open-flow, push-through respirometry system showing that heart rate predicted 74 per cent of energy expenditure. We conducted standardized disturbance trials in the field to experimentally simulate a natural stressor (predator presence) and two anthropogenic stressors. Although birds initially showed behavioural and heart rate reactions to some disturbances, we could not detect an overall increase in energy expenditure during 1- or 4-hours disturbances. Similarly, overall activity rates were unaltered between control and experimental periods, and birds continued to perform parental duties despite the experimental disturbances. We suggest that vireos quickly determined that disturbances were non-threatening and thus showed no (costly) physiological response. We hypothesize that the lack of a significant response to disturbance in vireos is adaptive and may be representative of animals with fast life histories (e.g. short lifespan, high reproductive output) so as to maximize energy allocation to reproduction. Conversely, we predict that energetic cost of human-mediated disturbances will be significant in slow-living animals.

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