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Effects of climate on bill morphology within and across Toxostoma thrashers

Cite this dataset

Probst, Charlotte; Ralston, Joel; Bentley, Ian (2021). Effects of climate on bill morphology within and across Toxostoma thrashers [Dataset]. Dryad.


Bird bills possess an important thermoregulatory function as they are a site for environmental heat exchange. Previous studies have demonstrated that birds in warmer climates have larger bills than those living in colder climates, as larger bills can dissipate more heat. Because this dry heat transfer does not incur water loss, it may be additionally advantageous in water-restricted habitats. Here, we examine the influence of climate on bill morphology in Toxostoma thrashers, a group of 10 North American species that vary in bill morphology and occupied climate niche, with several species inhabiting arid climates. Past examinations of thrasher bill morphology have only considered foraging, leaving unanswered the role of climate in morphological divergence within this group. We photographed 476 Toxostoma museum specimens encompassing all 10 species, and calculated bill measurements from the photos using a MATLAB-based program. For each species, we calculated occupied climate niche using data from WorldClim describing temperature and precipitation. We found no reliable significant relationships between climate variables and bill morphology across species, suggesting that other factors such as foraging behavior may be more important in shaping bill morphology in this genus. Within species, we found three Toxostoma species have significant relationships between bill morphology and climate that follow Allen’s Rule. However, we also found the relationships between climate and bill morphology varied in strength and direction across species. Notably, we found a negative relationship between maximum temperature of the hottest month and bill surface area in LeConte’s Thrasher, which occupies the hottest and most arid climates of the thrashers. This adds to the evidence that Allen’s Rule may reverse in extremely hot climates when the bill may become a heat sink instead of a heat radiator. These results demonstrate the importance of considering the generality of ecogeographical rules across lineages that occupy extreme climates.