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Respiratory mechanics of high altitude waterfowl York, Julia McRae


Birds living at high altitude (>3,000 meters) are not only able to cope with reduced oxygen availability due to hypobaria, but they are also able to achieve one of the most metabolically costly form of locomotion at these altitudes: flight. To perform such a metabolically demanding activity, in addition to energetically expensive daily tasks such as foraging, predator escape, and reproduction, all in oxygen limited (hypoxic) conditions, means that high altitude birds must enhance oxygen supply to maintain oxygen homeostasis. The primary means of increasing oxygen supply is increasing ventilation of the respiratory gas exchange surface. However, the metabolic cost of ventilation is unknown for birds at rest, as is whether this cost varies among bird species. In this thesis, the cost and work of breathing are compared in fourteen avian species to determine whether variation in the work of breathing is due to mechanical or morphological changes in the respiratory system, and if any observed changes are associated with living at high altitude. High altitude birds tended to have large and compliant respiratory systems compared with low altitude taxa, which reduces the work of breathing. However, the evidence also suggests that respiratory morphology and mechanics in birds may be more constrained by life history strategy than by evolutionary time at altitude, although species in this study that have no high altitude sister taxa (their lineages have never radiated to high altitude) struggled the most with increasing oxygen supply. Finally, birds at rest were estimated to have a lower cost of breathing than mammals, contrary to the hypothesis that cost of breathing would be high in birds due to the heavy flight muscles weighing down the sternum.

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