Climate variability and parent nesting strategies influence gas exchange across avian eggshells

Attard, Marie R. G. and Portugal, Steven J. (2021). Climate variability and parent nesting strategies influence gas exchange across avian eggshells. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 288(1953), article no. 20210823.



Embryo survival in birds depends on a controlled transfer of water vapour and respiratory gases through the eggshell, and this exchange is critically sensitive to the surrounding physical environment. As birds breed in most terrestrial habitats worldwide, we proposed that variation in eggshell conductance has evolved to optimise embryonic development under different breeding conditions. This is the first study to take a broad-scale macro-ecological view of avian eggshell conductance, encompassing all key avian taxonomic groups, to assess how life history and climate influence the evolution of this trait. Using whole eggs spanning a wide phylogenetic diversity of birds, we determine that body mass, temperature seasonality and whether both parents attend the nest are the main determinants of eggshell conductance. Birds breeding at high latitudes, where seasonal temperature fluctuations are greatest, will benefit from lower eggshell conductance to combat temporary periods of suspended embryo growth and prevent dehydration during prolonged incubation. The nest microclimate is more consistent in species where parents take turns incubating their clutch, resulting in lower eggshell conductance. This study highlights the remarkable functional qualities of eggshells and their importance for embryo survival in extreme climates.

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