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Flying animals generate large amounts of heat, which must be dissipated to avoid overheating. In birds, heat dissipation is complicated by feathers, which cover most body surfaces and retard heat loss. To understand how birds manage heat budgets during flight, it is critical to know how heat moves from the skin to the external environment. Hummingbirds are instructive because they fly at speeds from 0 to more than 12ms−1, during which they transit from radiative to convective heat loss. We used infrared thermography and particle image velocimetry to test the effects of flight speed on heat loss from specific body regions in flying calliope hummingbirds (Selasphorus calliope). We measured heat flux in a carcass with and without plumage to test the effectiveness of the insulation layer. In flying hummingbirds, the highest thermal gradients occurred in key heat dissipation areas (HDAs) around the eyes, axial region and feet. Eye and axial surface temperatures were 8◦C or more above air temperature, and remained relatively constant across speeds suggesting physiological regulation of skin surface temperature. During hovering, birds dangled their feet, which enhanced radiative heat loss. In addition, during hovering, near-body induced airflows from the wings were low except around the feet (approx. 2.5ms−1), which probably enhanced convective heat loss. Axial HDA and maximum surface temperature exhibited a shallow U-shaped pattern across speeds, revealing a localized relationship with power production in flight in the HDA closest to the primary flight muscles. We conclude that hummingbirds actively alter routes of heat dissipation as a function of flight speed.


Originally published in Royal Society Open Science:

Powers DR, Tobalske BW, Wilson JK, Woods HA, Corder KR. 2015 Heat dissipation during hovering and forward flight in hummingbirds. R. Soc. open sci. 2: 150598.