Page last updated at 18:04 GMT, Thursday, 23 July 2009 19:04 UK

Hot secret behind toucan's bill

By Rebecca Morelle
Science reporter, BBC News


Infrared footage shows how a toucan uses its bill to regulate its temperature

For centuries, scientists have puzzled over why the toucan's bill is so remarkably large - but now one team thinks it might have an answer.

Writing in the journal Science, the researchers say that the toucan uses its enormous beak to stay cool.

They used infrared cameras to show the bird dumping heat from its body into its bill, helping it to regulate its body temperature.

The toucan has the largest bill of any bird, relative to body size.

It makes up about one-third of its total body length.

Hot secrets

The oversize appendage has received many different interpretations: Charles Darwin thought it might be used to attract mates, more recent ideas centre on fruit peeling, nest predation and visual warnings.

Toucan (Thiago Filadelpho)
Darwin thought that the beak could be a sexual ornament

To investigate further, a team of researchers from Brock University, Canada, and Universidade Estadual Paulista, Brazil, looked at the toco toucan (Ramphastos toco), which has the biggest bill of all the toucans.

Dr Glenn Tattersall, the lead author of the paper, from Brock University, Canada, said: "We used infrared thermal imaging technology to assess the surface temperature of the bill of toucans while they were encountering a range of air temperatures from 10C to 35C.

"This allowed us to measure the exact temperature of the bill."

The scientists found that as the surroundings got warmer, the toucan's bill would rapidly heat up, effectively acting as a radiator to draw heat away from the bird's body, allowing it to stay cool.

Conversely, in cooler temperatures, little heat would radiate from the bill, letting the bird conserve its warmth.

Toucan (Glenn Tattersall)
As the surroundings heat up, the toucans dump body heat into their bills

The effect was particularly evident at night: at sunset, the birds would, in a matter of minutes, pump out heat from their beaks, lowering their body temperature as they slept.

The birds' bills have a network of blood vessels that can increase or restrict the flow of blood.

Dr Tattersall said: "By altering blood flow to the bill's surface, toucans can conserve body heat when it is cold or cope with heat stress by increasing blood flow.

"Essentially, the large surface area of the bill, and the fact it is not insulated, means that the blood flowing through is able to release heat into the bill, thus cooling the bird.

"This blood-derived heat in the bill is then dissipated into the air."

Effective radiators

Other animals also use parts of their bodies to regulate temperature, for example, elephants and rabbits radiate heat from their ears to cool down.

Birds do not sweat, so must cope with other mechanisms to deal with elevated temperatures
Glenn Tattersall, Brock University

But the sheer size of the toucan's bill means that relatively, it has one of the largest "thermal windows" in the animal kingdom.

The Science study also shows that the toucan is extremely effective at controlling its body heat with it: its bill can account for as much as 100% of body heat loss or as little as 5% if the blood flow is shut off.

Dr Tattersall explained: "Bird bills are not 'dead tissues', incapable of playing a role in heat balance, but are active contributors to thermoregulation."

He added: "Birds do not sweat, so must cope with other mechanisms to deal with elevated temperatures."

The researchers say that the finding that the toucan uses its beak to regulate body temperature does not rule out its other suggested functions.

The team now plans to look at other birds to see how their bills are involved with temperature regulation.

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