Acrobatic birds aren’t as energetic as they look

18 December 2013

Title:Energetics of the acrobatic courtship in male golden-collared manakins (Manacus Vitellinus)

Authors:J. Barske, L. Fusani, M. Wikelski, N. Y. Feng, M. Santos and B. A. Schlinger

Journal:Proceedings of the Royal Society B

In research published this week in Proceedings of the Royal Society B scientists have found that the acrobatic courtship displays of male golden-collared manakins are less energetically costly than they appear.

Red-capped manakin Manakins are a family of small birds found in the lowland tropics. This red-capped manakin is a relation of the golden-collared manakin. Image credit: dancingrabbit

Tropical birds often put on elaborate displays to woo potential mates; the golden-collared manakin found in the lowland tropics of Panama is no exception. Golden-collared manakins dance and snap their wings together behind their backs to win the attention of females. These sophisticated routines are performed daily over the golden-collared manakin’s long courtship season which can last up to seven months.

The scientists behind the study published today were intrigued by the energetic displays of the golden-collared manakin. Their acrobatics raised the heart rate of the birds to rates which can briefly exceed 1300 beats per minute. This increased rate suggests the courtship performances require a high energy investment. However, animals in the tropics tend to live slow paced lives with low metabolic rates expending less energy per day than counterparts from more temperate habitats. A team of scientists lead by Julia Barske from the University of California set out to investigate how golden-collared manakins keep up their acrobatic displays - do they live faster-paced, higher-energy lives than other tropical creatures or are their displays less energetically costly than they seem?

To determine the energy expended by golden-collared manakins the team of scientists measured the birds’ heart rates. The researchers captured eight manakins and attached miniature transmitters with electrodes inserted under the birds’ skin. The transmitters, which fall off harmlessly after 14 days, sent the scientists data about the heart rates of the golden-collared manakins throughout the study whilst they were at rest and whilst they performed courtship displays. The team also measured the oxygen consumption of some of the birds to help them work out that heart rate and metabolism in this particular species are linearly related. 

During courtship performances the team found the heart rates of the manikins they monitored rose from around 450 (±15) beats per minute to 1017 (±28).  These performances each last around 9.5 seconds but the number of performances each bird produces per day varied from 1.6 to 140. The team used this information to calculate how much energy manikins expended on their acrobatic dances, concluding that their performances require on average 0.5 kJ per day, amounting to around 5.2% of daily energy expenditure for the most active birds and just 0.1% for the least active.

Despite their exuberant courtship rituals manakins expend very little of their daily energy on romancing potential partners with acrobatic displays. The team suggest this could explain why the manakins’ breeding season, which sometimes lasts seven months, can continue for so long whilst the manakins maintain their slow pace of life, typical to animals in the tropics.

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