Examining the microclimate hypothesis in Amazonian birds: Indirect tests of the ‘visual constraints’ mechanism

19 December 2018

Rutt, Cameron; Midway, Stephen; Jirinec, Vitek; Wolfe, Jared; Stouffer, Phil

Proposed mechanisms for the decline of terrestrial and understory insectivorous birds in the tropics include a related subset that together has been termed the “microclimate hypothesis.” One prediction from this hypothesis is that sensitivity to bright light environments discourages birds of the dimly lit rainforest interior from using edges, gaps, or disturbed forest. Using a hierarchical Bayesian framework and capture data across time and space, we tested this by first determining vulnerability based on differences in within-species capture rates between disturbed and undisturbed forest for 64 bird species at the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project in central Amazonian Brazil. We found that 35 species (55%) were vulnerable to anthropogenic habitat degradation, whereas only four (6%) were more commonly captured in degraded forest. To infer visual sensitivity, we then examined two different characters: eye size (maximum pupil diameter) relative to body mass and the initiation time of dawn song, which presumably reflects a species’ visual capacity under low light intensities. We predicted that species with large relative eye sizes and birds with earlier dawn songs would exhibit increased vulnerability in degraded habitats with bright light. Contrary to our predictions, however, vulnerability was positively correlated with the mean start time of dawn song. This indicates that species that wait to initiate dawn song are also more vulnerable to habitat degradation. After correcting for body size, there was no effect of eye size on vulnerability. Together, our results do not provide quantitative support for the light sensitivity mechanism of the microclimate hypothesis. More sensitive, experimental tests, such as behavioral assays with controlled light environments, especially in a comparative framework, are needed to rigorously evaluate the role of light sensitivity as an aspect of the microclimate hypothesis among Neotropical birds.