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Mechanisms promoting higher growth rate in arctic than in temperate shorebirds

By G. Henk Visser, Ingrid Tulp, Theunis Piersma and Hans Schekkerman


We compared prefledging growth, energy expenditure, and time budgets in the arctic-breeding red knot (Calidris canutus) to those in temperate shorebirds, to investigate how arctic chicks achieve a high growth rate despite energetic difficulties associated with precocial development in a cold climate. Growth rate of knot chicks was very high compared to other, mainly temperate, shorebirds of their size, but strongly correlated with weather-induced and seasonal variation in availability of invertebrate prey. Red knot chicks sought less parental brooding and foraged more at the same mass and temperature than chicks of three temperate shorebird species studied in The Netherlands. Fast growth and high muscular activity in the cold tundra environment led to high energy expenditure, as measured using doubly labelled water: total metabolised energy over the 18-day prefledging period was 89% above an allometric prediction, and among the highest values reported for birds. A comparative simulation model based on our observations and data for temperate shorebird chicks showed that several factors combine to enable red knots to meet these high energy requirements: (1) the greater cold-hardiness of red knot chicks increases time available for foraging; (2) their fast growth further shortens the period in which chicks depend on brooding; and (3) the 24-h daylight increases potential foraging time, though knots apparently did not make full use of this. These mechanisms buffer the loss of foraging time due to increased need for brooding at arctic temperatures, but not enough to satisfy the high energy requirements without invoking (4) a higher foraging intake rate as an explanation. Since surface-active arthropods were not more abundant in our arctic study site than in a temperate grassland, this may be due to easier detection or capture of prey in the tundra. The model also suggested that the cold-hardiness of red knot chicks is critical in allowing them sufficient feeding time during the first week of life. Chicks hatched just after the peak of prey abundance in mid-July, but their food requirements were maximal at older ages, when arthropods were already declining. Snow cover early in the season prevented a better temporal match between chick energy requirements and food availability, and this may enforce selection for rapid growth.

Year: 2003
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