CIE Seminar Series – 2020: Feeling the heat – avian responses to changing climates

SPEAKER: Dr Todd McWhorter, Senior Lecturer in Veterinary Physiology, School of Animal & Veterinary Sciences, University of Adelaide, SA

DATE & TIME: Friday, 5th June 2020 @ 12:00 noon

LOCATION: Seminar to be streamed via Zoom. Click HERE to connect.


Wild birds are vulnerable to climate change and extreme weather events such as heatwaves. Mass die-offs of birds due to heatwaves have been reported, both historic and recent, in Australia and worldwide. The frequency and intensity of heatwaves, and average maximum air temperatures, are expected to continue increasing over coming decades, thus increasing the likelihood of wild bird die-offs.

These events have the potential to impact bird populations, species distributions and biodiversity, i.e. where birds are able to live and the contributions they make to ecosystems. Especially concerning are the potential impacts on threatened or endangered species, where a few extreme weather events can significantly reduce remaining populations.

Recent work on body temperature regulation across a number of bird orders inhabiting deserts in North America, Australia and Africa has revealed differences in heat tolerance and the mechanisms used to defend body temperature under hot conditions.

In this talk, I will explore data collected by our group on heat tolerance and evaporative water loss, using a taxonomic perspective. I will also discuss two studies done by my recent Ph.D. student Shangzhe Xie (now at Wildlife Reserves Singapore) on behavioural responses of birds to heat, and physiological stress responses to heat exposure.

We don’t know enough about the physiological and behavioural responses of birds to heat exposure to make good predictions about species’ vulnerability to climate change – such data will be important for improved conservation outcomes.


I am a comparative/ecological/evolutionary physiologist interested in how animals function and how function evolves. Over the past 25 years my research has focused primarily on the mechanisms of digestion and nutrient absorption, modelling digestive capacity, nutritional ecology, kidney function, and salt and water balance.

More recently, my research program has expanded into conservation physiology and medicine- applying the concepts and methodologies of these fields to pressing problems in conservation of wildlife and biodiversity in general.

Current projects in this area include assessing the impacts of climate change and extreme weather events on the physiological and stress responses of animals, studying the impacts of habitat fragmentation and other anthropogenic disturbances on the physiological responses of animals, and developing novel methods to control feral animals.

I am originally from southern California and did my undergraduate study at the University of California, Irvine. After earning a M.Sc. from the University of Wyoming and Ph.D. from the University of Arizona it was my pleasure to spend a few years as a postdoc in Bill Karasov’s lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

A successful ARC-DP application on the nutritional ecology and physiology of nectar-feeding birds brought me to Trish Fleming’s lab in the veterinary school at Murdoch University in March 2006.

An opportunity to help found the new veterinary School at the University of Adelaide brought my family and me to Adelaide in early 2009.

For more info click HERE.

As a courtesy, we request that when connecting to the seminar that you mute your microphone unless you are required to speak, this would ensure that the sound from the speaker to the audience is not disrupted by feedback from your microphone.

Thanking you in advance!