Using a Thermal Camera to Measure Heat Loss Through Bird Feather Coats

J Vis Exp. 2020 Jun 17;(160). doi: 10.3791/60981.


Feathers are essential to insulation, and therefore to the cost of thermoregulation, in birds. There is robust literature on the energetic cost of thermoregulation in birds across a variety of ecological circumstances. However, few studies characterize the contribution of the feathers alone to thermoregulation. Several previous studies have established methods for measuring the insulation value of animal pelts, but they require destructive sampling methods that are problematic for birds, whose feathers are not distributed evenly across the skin. More information is needed about 1) how the contribution of feathers to thermoregulation varies both across and within species and 2) how feather coats may change over space and time. Reported here is a method for rapidly and directly measuring the thermal performance of feather coats and the skin using dried whole skin specimens, without the need to destroy the skin specimen. This method isolates and measures the thermal gradient across a feather coat in a way that measurements of heat loss and metabolic cost in live birds, which use behavioral and physiological strategies to thermoregulate, cannot. The method employs a thermal camera, which allows the rapid collection of quantitative thermal data to measure heat loss from a stable source through the skin. This protocol can easily be applied to various research questions, is applicable to any avian taxa, and does not require destruction of the skin specimen. Finally, it will further the understanding of the importance of passive thermoregulation in birds by simplifying and accelerating the collection of quantitative data.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Video-Audio Media

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Birds / physiology*
  • Body Temperature Regulation / physiology*
  • Data Collection
  • Feathers / physiology*
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Photography / instrumentation*
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Temperature*