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Nocturnal loss of body reserves reveals high survival risk for subordinate great tits wintering at extremely low ambient temperatures

  • Indrikis Krams
  • Dina Cīrule
  • Jolanta Vrublevska
  • Andreas Nord
  • Markus J. Rantala
  • Tatjana Krama
Publishing year: 2013
Language: English
Pages: 339-346
Publication/Series: Oecologia
Volume: 172
Issue: 2
Document type: Journal article
Publisher: Springer

Abstract english

Winter acclimatization in birds is a complex of several strategies based on metabolic adjustment accompanied by long-term management of resources such as fattening. However, wintering birds often maintain fat reserves below their physiological capacity, suggesting a cost involved with excessive levels of reserves. We studied body reserves of roosting great tits in relation to their dominance status under two contrasting temperature regimes to see whether individuals are capable of optimizing their survival strategies under extreme environmental conditions. We predicted less pronounced loss of body mass and body condition and lower rates of overnight mortality in dominant great tits at both mild and extremely low ambient temperatures, when ambient temperature dropped down to −43 °C. The results showed that dominant great tits consistently maintained lower reserve levels than subordinates regardless of ambient temperature. However, dominants responded to the rising risk of starvation under low temperatures by increasing their body reserves, whereas subdominant birds decreased reserve levels in harsh conditions. Yet, their losses of body mass and body reserves were always lower than in subordinate birds. None of the dominant great tits were found dead, while five young females and one adult female were found dead in nest boxes during cold spells when ambient temperatures dropped down to −43 °C. The dead great tits lost up to 23.83 % of their evening body mass during cold nights while surviving individuals lost on average 12.78 % of their evening body mass. Our results show that fattening strategies of great tits reflect an adaptive role of winter fattening which is sensitive to changes in ambient temperatures and differs among individuals of different social ranks.


  • Biological Sciences
  • Winter survival
  • Great tit
  • Parus major
  • Low temperatures
  • Fattening strategies


  • ISSN: 1432-1939
Andreas Nord at NHM London
E-mail: andreas [dot] nord [at] biol [dot] lu [dot] se


Evolutionary ecology

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