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Evolution. 2009 Jan;63(1):184-94. doi: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2008.00522.x. Epub 2008 Sep 18.

The evolution of high summit metabolism and cold tolerance in birds and its impact on present-day distributions.

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Department of Biology, University of South Dakota, Vermillion, South Dakota 57069, USA.


Summit metabolic rate (M(sum), maximum cold-induced metabolic rate) is positively correlated with cold tolerance in birds, suggesting that high M(sum) is important for residency in cold climates. However, the phylogenetic distribution of high M(sum) among birds and the impact of its evolution on current distributions are not well understood. Two potential adaptive hypotheses might explain the phylogenetic distribution of high M(sum) among birds. The cold adaptation hypothesis contends that species wintering in cold climates should have higher M(sum) than species wintering in warmer climates. The flight adaptation hypothesis suggests that volant birds might be capable of generating high M(sum) as a byproduct of their muscular capacity for flight; thus, variation in M(sum) should be associated with capacity for sustained flight, one indicator of which is migration. We collected M(sum) data from the literature for 44 bird species and conducted both conventional and phylogenetically informed statistical analyses to examine the predictors of M(sum) variation. Significant phylogenetic signal was present for log body mass, log mass-adjusted M(sum), and average temperature in the winter range. In multiple regression models, log body mass, winter temperature, and clade were significant predictors of log M(sum). These results are consistent with a role for climate in determining M(sum) in birds, but also indicate that phylogenetic signal remains even after accounting for associations indicative of adaptation to winter temperature. Migratory strategy was never a significant predictor of log M(sum) in multiple regressions, a result that is not consistent with the flight adaptation hypothesis.

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