Principal Investigators


Prof. Andrew McKechnie

Prof Andew McKechnie, hot birds


Prof. Andrew E. McKechnie

Department of Zoology and Entomology
University of Pretoria
Pretoria, 0002
South Africa


South African Research Chair in Conservation Physiology

South African National Biodiversity Institute



Tel: +27 12 420 3232
Fax: + 27 12 362 5242

Andrew McKechnie is a Professor in the Department of Zoology and Entomology at the University of Pretoria, and the South African Research Chair of Conservation Physiology at the South African National Biodiversity Institute. He obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Natal in 2002, where his postgraduate research focused on the ecology and evolution of avian heterothermy. Thereafter, he spent two years as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of New Mexico before returning to South Africa in 2004 to take up a position at the University of the Witwatersrand, where he remained until moving to the University of Pretoria in early 2008. He was acting Deputy Dean: Research and Postgraduate Studies in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences during the period August 2014 to March 2015. He has been a core team member of the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence at the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town since the Centre was established in 2004. He is currently Associate Editor for two journals, namely Climate Change Responses and Emu – Austral Ornithology, and is a member of the editorial board of Journal of Comparative Physiology B. 

Research interests


My research interests fall into three major areas:
Physiological approaches to predicting climate change impacts on arid-zone birds

Empirical data on the temperature dependence of a suite of physiological and behavioural variables are needed to parameterise models linking current and future climates to survival and reproduction over time scales ranging from hours to seasons. One key aspect of this work involves quantifying variation among and within species in heat tolerance limits and evaporative cooling capacities; this information is vital for understanding whether birds will be able to cope with more frequent and intense heat waves.

Avian physiological diversity: integrating sources of phenotypic variation

This component of my research program seeks to understand how different sources of phenotypic variation in physiological traits interact with each other and contribute to physiological diversity. My work in this area has focused primarily on metabolic rates, and to a lesser extent evaporative water loss rates. My approach involves a combination of experimental work under laboratory conditions, investigation of physiological variation in free-ranging populations, and synthetic analyses of published data.

Ecology and evolution of heterothermy

My work on heterothermic responses in birds relies on three complementary approaches: quantifying heterothermy under natural conditions in order to better understand the phylogenetic distribution and ecological determinants of heterothermic responses, experimental manipulations of energy balance to elucidate proximate determinants of heterothermic responses, and bioenergetic modeling and literature reviews.

Key Publications

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Conradie, S.R., Woodborne, S.M., Cunningham, S.J. and McKechnie, A.E. (2019). Chronic, sublethal effects of high temperatures will cause severe declines in southern African arid-zone birds during the 21st century. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116: 14065-14070.

Gerson, A.R., McKechnie, A.E., Smit, B., Whitfield, M.C., Smith, E.K., Talbot, W.A., McWhorter, T.J. and Wolf, B.O. (2019). The functional significance of facultative hyperthermia varies with body size and phylogeny. Functional Ecology


McKechnie, A.E. and Wolf, B.O. (2019). The physiology of heat tolerance in small endotherms. Physiology 34: 302-313.

Noakes, M.J. and McKechnie, A.E. (2019). Reaction norms for heat tolerance and evaporative cooling capacity do not vary across a climatic gradient in a passerine bird. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology, Part A 236: 110522.

Smit, B., Woodborne, S.M., Wolf, B.O. and McKechnie, A.E. (2019). Differences in the use of surface water resources by desert birds is revealed using isotopic tracers. The Auk: Ornithological Advances 136

O’Connor, R.S., Smit, B., Talbot, W.A., Gerson, A.R., Brigham, R.M., Wolf, B.O. and McKechnie, A.E. (2018). Avian thermoregulation in the heat: is evaporative cooling more economical in nocturnal birds? Journal of Experimental Biology 221: jeb181420.

McKechnie, A.E., Gerson, A.R., McWhorter, T.J., Smith, E.K., Talbot, W.A. and Wolf, B.O. (2017). Avian thermoregulation in the heat: evaporative cooling in five Australian passerines reveals within-order biogeographic variation in heat tolerance. Journal of Experimental Biology 220: 2436-2444. 

Whitfield, M.C., Smit, B., McKechnie, A.E. and Wolf, B.O. (2015). Avian thermoregulation in the heat: scaling of heat tolerance and evaporative cooling capacity in three southern African arid-zone passerines. Journal of Experimental Biology 218: 1705-1714.

Smit, B., Harding, C.T., Hockey, P.A.R. and McKechnie, A.E. (2013). Adaptive thermoregulation during summer in two populations of an arid-zone passerine. Ecology 94: 1142-1154.


McKechnie, A.E., Hockey, P.A.R. and Wolf, B.O. (2012). Feeling the heat: Australian landbirds and climate change. Emu 112: i-vii.


McKechnie, A.E. and Wolf, B.O. (2010). Climate change increases the likelihood of catastrophic avian mortality events during extreme heat waves. Biology Letters 6: 253-256.



Dr. Susan Cunningham

Dr Susan Cunningham, Susie, hot birds


Dr Susan J. Cunningham
FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology
DST-NRF Centre of Excellence
University of Cape Town
Rondebosch, 7701
South Africa



Tel: + 27 21 650 33 06
Fax: + 27 21 650 32 95

Susie is a lecturer at the FitzPatrick Institute, University of Cape Town. She has been involved in the Hot Birds programme since 2010, initially as a post-doc with Prof. Phil Hockey and later as PI of the behaviour side of the programme. She works closely with Andrew McKechnie on projects integrating behavioural and physiological approaches to understand the thermal biology of birds.

Susie is a New Zealander and completed her undergraduate degrees in Ecology & Biodiversity and Classical Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, and her Ph.D. on tactile sensory systems in birds at Massey University. She moved to South Africa in 2010 and spent her first field season in the Kalahari over the summer of 2010/11. The focus of Susie’s and her students’ field work is on the relationship between thermal biology and behavioural ecology, in particular the fitness consequences of behavioural thermoregulation. 

Research interests


Understanding the vulnerability of arid zone birds to climate change

A major focus of Susie’s current research is the use of mechanistic approaches to understand the potential vulnerability of different bird species to climate change. Together with her collaborators and students, she studies the behavioural and ecophysiological responses of birds to high temperatures, with a focus on fitness consequences associated with thermoregulatory trade-offs. Susie works closely with Andrew McKechnie and Ben Smit (NMMU) on these questions, using predominantly Kalahari species, but also fynbos birds, as model taxa.

Behavioural ecology in a changing world

Susie is interested in the behavioural flexibility of animals in the face of ecological change: how environmental factors, particularly temperature and aridity, drive behavioural decisions. She is especially interested in the consequences of these decisions for individual fitness, sociality, and the evolution of life history strategies.


Sensory ecology

When not in the Kalahari, Susie continues work on the non-visual senses used by animals –especially birds - in foraging and social interactions, the ecological pressures that favour non-visual senses, and the connections between sensory systems and behaviour. 

Key Publications

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van de Ven, T.M.F.N., McKechnie, A.E. and Cunningham S.J. In press. High temperatures are associated with substantial reductions in breeding success and offspring quality in an arid‑zone bird. Oecologia.

Bourne, A.R., McKechnie, A.E., Cunningham, S.J., Ridley, A.R., Woodborne, S.M. and Karasov, W.H. (2019). Non-invasive measurement of metabolic rates in wild, free-living birds using doubly labelled water. Functional Ecology 33: 162-174.

Conradie, S.R., Woodborne, S.M., Cunningham, S.J. and McKechnie, A.E. (2019). Chronic, sublethal effects of high temperatures will cause severe declines in southern African arid-zone birds during the 21st century. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116: 14065-14070

Oswald, K.N., Smit, B., Lee, A.T.K. and Cunningham, S.J. (2019). Behaviour of an alpine range-restricted species is described by interactions between microsite-use and temperature. Animal Behaviour. 157: 177-187.

Stofberg, M., Cunningham, S.J., Sumasgutner, P. and Amar, A. (2019). Juggling a “junk-food” diet: responses of an urban bird to fluctuating anthropogenic-food availability. Urban Ecosystems DOI: 10.1007/s11252-019-00885-3

van de Ven, T.M., McKechnie, A.E. and Cunningham, S.J. (2019). The costs of keeping cool: behavioural trade-offs between foraging and thermoregulation are associated with significant mass losses in an arid-zone bird. Oecologia doi: 10.1007/s00442-019-04486-x

Abdu, S., McKechnie, A.E., Lee, A.T.K. and Cunningham, S.J. (2018). Can providing shade at water points help Kalahari birds beat the heat? Journal of Arid Environments 152: 21-27.

Abdu, S., Lee, A.T.K. and Cunningham, S.J. (2018). The presence of artificial water points structures an arid-zone avian community over small spatial scales. Ostrich. DOI: 10.2989/00306525.2018.1509904

Cunningham, S.J. (2018). Birds of the arid zones: living life on the edge. Ostrich 89: 297-298.

Thompson, M.L., Cunningham, S.J. and McKechnie, A.E. (2018). Interspecific variation in avian thermoregulatory patterns and heat dissipation behaviours in a subtropical desert. Physiology and Behaviour 180: 311-323.

Cunningham, S.J., Thompson, M.L. and McKechnie, A.E. (2017). It's cool to be dominant: social status alters short-term risks of heat stress. Journal of Experimental Biology 220: 1558-1562.


Cunningham, S.J.*, Madden, C.*, Barnard, P. and Amar, A. (2016). Electric crows: powerlines, climate change, and the emergence of a native invader. Diversity and Distributions DOI: 10.1111/ddi.12381. *joint first authors


van de Ven, T.M.F.N, Martin, R.O., Vink, T.J.F., McKechnie, A.E. and Cunningham, S.J. (2016). Regulation of heat exchange across the hornbill beak: functional similarities with toucans? PLoS ONE 11: e0154768.

Cunningham, S.J., Martin, R.O. and Hockey, P.A.R. (2015). Can behaviour buffer the impacts of climate change on an arid-zone bird? Ostrich: Journal of African Ornithology 86: 119-126.


Martin, R.O., Cunningham, S.J. and Hockey, P.A.R. (2015) Elevated temperatures drive fine-scale patterns of habitat use in a savannah bird community. Ostrich: Journal of African Ornithology 86: 127-135.


Milne, R., Cunningham, S.J., Lee, A. and Smit, B. (2015). The role of thermal physiology in recent declines of birds in a biodiversity hotspot. Conservation Physiology doi:10.1093/conphys/cov048.

Cunningham, S.J., Kruger, A.C., Nxumalo, M.P. and Hockey, P.A.R. (2013). Identifying biologically meaningful hot-weather events using threshold temperatures that affect life-history. PLoS ONE 8: e82492.

Cunningham, S.J., Martin, R.O., Hojem, C.L. and Hockey, P.A.R. (2013). Temperatures in excess of critical thresholds threaten nestling growth and survival in a rapidly-warming arid savanna: a study of common fiscals. PLoS ONE 8: e74613.


du Plessis, K.L., Martin, R.W., Hockey, P.A.R., Cunningham, S.J. and Ridley, A.R. (2012). The costs of keeping cool in a warming world: implications of high temperatures for foraging, thermoregulation and body condition of an arid-zone bird. Global Change Biology 18: 3063-3070.