Torpor in dark times: patterns of heterothermy are associated with the lunar cycle in a nocturnal bird

J Biol Rhythms. 2011 Jun;26(3):241-8. doi: 10.1177/0748730411402632.


Many studies have shown that endotherms become more heterothermic when the costs of thermoregulation are high and/or when limited energy availability constrains thermoregulatory capacity. However, the roles of many ecological variables, including constraints on foraging opportunities and/or success, remain largely unknown. To test the prediction that thermoregulatory patterns should be related to foraging opportunities in a heterothermic endotherm, we examined the relationship between the lunar cycle and heterothermy in Freckled Nightjars (Caprimulgus tristigma), which are visually orienting, nocturnal insectivores that are dependent on ambient light to forage. This model system provides an opportunity to assess whether variation in foraging opportunities influences the expression of heterothermy. The nightjars were active and foraged for insects when moonlight was available but became inactive and heterothermic in the absence of moonlight. Lunar illumination was a much stronger predictor of the magnitude of heterothermic responses than was air temperature (T(a)). Our data suggest that heterothermy was strongly related to variation in foraging opportunities associated with the lunar cycle, even though food abundance appeared to remain relatively high throughout the study period. Patterns of thermoregulation in this population of Freckled Nightjars provide novel insights into the environmental and ecological determinants of heterothermy, with the lunar cycle, and not T(a), being the strongest predictor of torpor use.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Clocks*
  • Birds / physiology*
  • Body Temperature Regulation*
  • Ecosystem
  • Feeding Behavior*
  • Insecta
  • Moon*
  • Seasons
  • South Africa