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Nesting behaviour influences species-specific gas exchange across avian eggshells

Portugal, S J; Maurer, G; Thomas, G H; Hauber, M E; Grim, T; Cassey, P


S J Portugal

G Maurer

G H Thomas

M E Hauber

T Grim

P Cassey


Carefully controlled gas exchange across the eggshell is essential for the development of the avian embryo. Water vapour conductance (GH2O) across the shell, typically measured as mass loss during incubation, has been demonstrated to optimally ensure the healthy development of the embryo while avoiding desiccation. Accordingly, eggs exposed to sub-optimal gas exchange have reduced hatching success. We tested the association between eggshell GH2O and putative life-history correlates of adult birds, ecological nest parameters and physical characteristics of the egg itself to investigate how variation in GH2O has evolved to maintain optimal water loss across a diverse set of nest environments. We measured gas exchange through eggshell fragments in 151 British breeding bird species and fitted phylogenetically controlled, general linear models to test the relationship between GH2O and potential predictor parameters of each species. Of our 17 life-history traits, only two were retained in the final model: wet-incubating parent and nest type. Eggs of species where the parent habitually returned to the nest with wet plumage had significantly higher GH2O than those of parents that returned to the nest with dry plumage. Eggs of species nesting in ground burrows, cliffs and arboreal cups had significantly higher GH2O than those of species nesting on the ground in open nests or cups, in tree cavities and in shallow arboreal nests. Phylogenetic signal (measured as Pagel's λ) was intermediate in magnitude, suggesting that differences observed in the GH2O are dependent upon a combination of shared ancestry and species-specific life history and ecological traits. Although these data are correlational by nature, they are consistent with the hypothesis that parents constrained to return to the nest with wet plumage will increase the humidity of the nest environment, and the eggs of these species have evolved a higher GH2O to overcome this constraint and still achieve optimal water loss during incubation. We also suggest that eggs laid in cup nests and burrows may require a higher GH2O to overcome the increased humidity as a result from the confined nest microclimate lacking air movements through the nest. Taken together, these comparative data imply that species-specific levels of gas exchange across avian eggshells are variable and evolve in response to ecological and physical variation resulting from parental and nesting behaviours.


Portugal, S. J., Maurer, G., Thomas, G. H., Hauber, M. E., Grim, T., & Cassey, P. (in press). Nesting behaviour influences species-specific gas exchange across avian eggshells. Journal of Experimental Biology, 217(Pt 18), 3326-32.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Jul 1, 2014
Deposit Date Nov 11, 2014
Publicly Available Date Feb 8, 2019
Print ISSN 0022-0949
Publisher The Company of Biologists
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 217
Issue Pt 18
Pages 3326-32
Public URL
Additional Information Corporate Creators : Adelaide, New York, Palacky Uni, Sheffield


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