Birds lay eggs with a huge variety of colours and patterns, from immaculate white to a range of blue-greens and reddish browns.
The need to conceal eggs from predators is one factor that gives rise to all kinds of camouflaged and hard-to-spot appearances.
Yet our research, published today in Nature Ecology & Evolution, shows that climate is even more important.
Dark colours play a crucial role in regulating temperatures in many biological systems. This is particularly common for animals like reptiles, which rely on environmental sources of heat to keep themselves warm.
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Darker colours absorb more heat from sunlight, and animals with these colours are more commonly found in colder climates with less sunlight. This broad pattern is known as Bogert’s rule.
Birds’ eggs are useful for studying this pattern because the developing embryo can only survive in a narrow range of temperatures. But eggs cannot regulate their own temperature and, in most cases, the parent does it by sitting atop the clutch of eggs.
In colder environments, where the risk of predators is lower and the risk of chilling in cold temperatures is greater, parents spend less time away from the nest.
We predicted that if eggshell colour does play an important role in regulating the temperature of the embryo, birds living in colder environments should have darker eggs.
To test the prediction, we measured eggshell brightness and colour for 634 species of birds. That’s more than 5% of all bird species, representing 36 of the 40 large groups of species called orders.
We mapped these within each species’ breeding range and found that eggs in the coldest environments (those with the least sunlight) were significantly darker. This was true for all nest types.
We also conducted experiments using domestic chicken eggs to confirm that darker eggshells heated up more rapidly and maintained their incubation temperatures for longer than white eggshells.
Our results show that darker eggshells are found in places with less sunlight and lower temperatures, and that these darker colours may help keep the developing embryo warm.
How future climate change will affect eggshell appearance, as well as the timing of reproduction and incubation behaviour, will be an important and fruitful avenue for future research.
Clownfish achieved worldwide fame following Finding Nemo, but it turns out these fish don’t do so well in the spotlight.
Our research, published in Biology Letters, found when clownfish eggs were exposed to low levels of light at night – as they would be if laid near a coastal town – not a single egg hatched.
This finding adds to the growing body of research on the health affects of light pollution, a rapidly spreading ecological problem.
Light pollution occurs when artificial light interferes with ecological systems or processes, usually at night.
Natural light at night, produced by the moon, stars, and other celestial bodies, is minimal. A full moon creates only 0.05-0.1 lux, which pales in comparison to the artificial light produced by humans, which can range from around 10 lux from an LED or low-pressure sodium streetlight, up to 2,000 lux from something like stadium lighting.
Because nearly all organisms on Earth have evolved with a stable day-night, light and dark cycle, many biological events are now highly attuned to the daily, lunar, and seasonal changes in light produced by the reliable movements of the Earth and Moon around the Sun.
But artificial light can mask these natural light rhythms and interfere with the behaviour and physiology of individual creatures, and ecosystems as a whole.
The ocean is not exempt from these problems. Light pollution is spreading to marine habitats through urbanised coastlines and increasing marine infrastructure such as piers, harbours, cruise ships, and tropical island resorts where bungalows extend out into the lagoon, directly above coral reefs.
Clownfish, like many reef fish, are particularly vulnerable to light pollution because they don’t move around much in their adult stage. Clownfish can travel long distances in the first 2 weeks after hatching, but at the end of this period the young fish will settle in a suitable sea anemone that becomes their forever-home.
This means that if a fish chooses an anemone on a shallow reef in an area that is heavily lit at night, they will experience chronic exposure to light pollution throughout their life; they won’t just move away.
Clownfish also lay their eggs attached to rock or other hard surfaces, so in areas exposed to light pollution the eggs will experience continuous artificial light (as opposed to many fish that lay and fertilise eggs in open water, so they are immediately carried away by ocean currents).
To test how artificial light affects clownfish reproduction, we examined the common clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris) in a lab experiment.
Five breeding pairs of fish experienced a normal 12-hour daylight, 12-hour dark cycle, while another five pairs of fish had their “night” period replaced with 12 hours of light at 26.5 lux, mimicking light pollution from an average coastal town.
For 60 days, we monitored how often the fish spawned, how many eggs were fertilised, and how many eggs hatched. While we saw no difference in spawning frequency or fertilisation rates between the two groups of fish, the impact of the artificial light treatment on hatch rate was staggering. None of the eggs hatched, compared with an average of 86% in the control group.
At the end of the experiment we removed the artificial light and monitored the fish for another 60 days to see how they would recover. As soon as the light at night was removed, eggs resumed hatching at normal rates.
Clownfish, like many reef fish, have evolved to hatch after dusk to avoid the threat of being eaten. Newly hatched baby clownfish, like most coral reef fish, are small (about 5mm long) and transparent. Hatching in darkness likely means they are less visible to predators as they emerge from their eggs.
Our findings show that the presence of artificial light, even at relatively low levels, can disrupt this crucial process, by masking the environmental cue – darkness – that triggers hatching. As many reef fish share similar reproductive behaviours to clownfish, it is likely artificial light will similarly interfere with the ability of other fish species to produce viable offspring.
And the problem is only growing. The reach of light pollution across all land and sea is expanding at an estimated rate of 2.2% per year, and this will only increase with the rising global human population.
Although research on the ecological impacts of light pollution is arguably only in its infancy, the evidence for negative consequences for a range of insects, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals, including humans, is stacking up.
Our new research adds another species to the list, and highlights the importance of finding ways to manage or reduce artificial light, on land and below the waves.
I have had a most interesting couple of days on the road and in the bush. Currently I’m in a motel room at Woolgoolga, near Coffs Harbour on the mid-north coast of New South Wales, Australia. ‘Hardly the wild,’ I hear you say, and you’re quite right – it isn’t. The weather was beginning to change I noticed on the final leg of my day’s itinerary, so I decided to hide out in a motel room for the night – good decision, it’s pouring outside.
I won’t give all away – I’ll leave the main description of the holiday to the website – but just some of the ‘downlights’ of the first couple of days for this post.
I didn’t arrive at Cathedral Rock National Park until just on dark, but did get the tent up prior to darkness arriving – when it did, it was dark! The campfire took an eternity to get going as all of the timber was damp and by the time I got it started it was time for bed – all-be-it an early night (7.30pm). I had decided to not spend the money on replacing all of the gear I needed to replace for camping, following the loss of a lot of gear over the years due to storage, etc. I hadn’t done much in the way of bushwalking or camping for years due to injuries sustained in my car crash and a bad ankle injury, so I left it all a bit late. I figured that for this holiday I’d make do and replace the gear with quality gear before the next trip. In short, I’ll get by – but it would have been nice to have some good gear just the same. It was a very cold night let me tell you – and long.
When I reached the heights of my first walk today, standing on top of Cathedral Rock National Park, my digital camera decided to die on me. I knew there was something wrong with it during the ascent as it was really chugging away taking pictures. I did get a couple of reasonable panoramic shots on the top of Cathedral Rock before it died, so that was good. I took stills with the video camera I was using, so it wasn’t a complete loss. When I completed the Woolpack Rocks walk I made the trip to Coffs Harbour to seek a replacement and got one for a reasonable price. It’s just another compact and so I will also buy a digital SLR prior to my next trip I hope. My previous SLR was basically destroyed when the camera cap came off during a multiple day bushwalk and all manner of stuff got into it. It wasn’t digital so I didn’t bother repairing it.
So tomorrow – off to Dorrigo National Park I hope and several lengthy walks I haven’t done before. Hopefully the rain will clear.