Climate change is relentless and ongoing, and the world’s deserts are heating up. Desert species already live life on the edge and can give us early warning of the impacts of change.


We investigate the thermal physiology and behaviour of desert birds. We study birds at both community and species levels, and our core goal is to understand how and why they are likely to cope – or fail to cope – in a hotter world. Along the way we are making exciting discoveries and adding to our knowledge of thermal biology, ecophysiology, behavioural ecology and life history strategies.


The Hot Birds Project was initiated in 2009 by the late Prof. Phil Hockey, then Director of the FitzPatrick Institute, University of Cape Town, and Prof. Andrew McKechnie, University of Pretoria. Today we are an interdisciplinary team of physiologists and behavioural ecologists consisting of professors, lecturers, post-docs, students, and research assistants from universities in South Africa, the USA, and Australia, with collaborators even further afield.

Navigate around the pages to find out more about our three major directions linked to temperature: behaviour, physiology and their interface; and to learn about the work we are doing in the Fynbos biome as well.

Research on temperature and behaviour

Physiological thermoregulation in the heat is costly for endotherms. Changes in behaviour (e.g. reduction in activity) and microsite selection (choosing shaded, cool locations in the landscape) can reduce some of these costs by reducing the animal’s ‘heat load’. However, these strategies (collectively called ‘behavioural thermoregulation’) carry their own baggage. Here we investigate what are the fitness payoff of behavioural thermoregulation. 

Research to develop a behavioural index of physiological stress: HD50

This aspect of Hot Birds research project seeks to validate a behavioural index of vulnerability to heat stress in birds inhabiting hot desert environments. We are busy testing predictions that relate heat dissipation behaviours to underlying changes in body temperature and hydration status in model species that vary in terms of the relationship between environmental temperature and heat dissipation behaviours. Our aim is to outline physiological payoffs of heat stress by observing behaviour.

Research on temperature and physiology

Desert birds routinely experience air temperatures that exceed their normal body temperatures, and under conditions of intense solar radiation may need to defend body temperatures 15-20 °C below operative temperature. Relatively little is known about the upper limits to avian heat tolerance and evaporative cooling capacity.

Research in the Fynbos biome

The Fynbos biome of South Africa is a global biodiversity hotspot. Famous mostly for its floral diversity, it is also home to seven endemic bird species. Fynbos is found from the mountains to the coast in the southwestern corner of South Africa, occurring within a Mediterranean climate zone. Climate warming in the Fynbos has been non-uniform to date with inland mountainous areas showing the strongest warming trends.

The Hot Birds project made its first foray into the Fynbos in 2013. 

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