Giant bill generates big interest
“A new kind of heating bill.”
“Who can cool his body fast? Toucan.”
“Toucan’s bill gives big chill.”
Those are just a few of the colourful headlines Glenn Tattersall’s work at Brock University generated recently when the results of his study were published in the prestigious journal Science.
Tattersall, an associate professor in Biological Sciences, found that Toco Toucans use their bills to regulate their body temperature.
“An elephant uses its ears to dump heat,” Tattersall said. “Mice use their tails. Toucans use their bills.”
Tattersall’s study in Sao Paulo, Brazil with Denis V. Andrade and Augusto S. Abe of Sao Paulo State University, began in 2005. He studied six birds, some of whom were “quite gregarious.”
By examining thousands of thermal images, he found a toucan’s giant bill, with its expanding and contracting blood vessels, acts as a heat exchange organ.
“These photographs help us see if an animal is heat stressed or not, due to changes in their environment,” he said. “The more we know about how birds adapt to their environment, the better we can focus conservation efforts.
“Understanding that the bird bill can act as a thermal radiator will shed light on the importance of this structure in the evolution of birds in general, and may have implications for how evolutionary biologists interpret how environmental changes have shaped this very important morphological feature.”
While toucan bills look clumsy, the birds are agile enough to peel grapes with them, Tattersall said. Once and for all, his study dispels the notion that bird bills are only useful for feeding and attracting potential mates.
Tattersall's lab continues studying the thermoregulatory and metabolic physiology of animals.
Glenn Tattersall's study of the Toco toucan revealed the bird's ability to regulate its body temperature through its beak.