Alexander Gerson Studies Native Songbirds at Risk in a Warming Climate

When it’s 120 degrees in Phoenix, it’s not only planes that aren’t flying. Desert birds are also grounded—hunkered down in the shade until it cools off—but if they stay too long, they can weaken from dehydration and be unable to replenish their water. It’s a vicious cycle, one that UMass Amherst is collaborating with other universities to understand.

“The uniqueness of this collaboration arises from the way it combines climate mapping and geographic information with physiological data,” says Alexander Gerson, Assistant
Professor of Biology, who contributed his expertise in how birds handle thermal stress to the study.

Using land-surface modeling and hourly temperature maps, the team projected the potential effects of current and future heat waves on lethal dehydration in birds and how rapidly this can occur in species native to the Sonoran Desert. Their models revealed that increasing air temperatures and heat wave occurrences will potentially affect the water balance, daily activity patterns, and geographic distribution of arid-zone birds. Some regions of the desert could become uninhabitable for many species, and future high-temperature events could depopulate whole regions—as they have with mass avian die-offs occurring in Australia and South Africa.

Read more in the UMass News article

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