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National Geographic News: “Giant Toucan Bills Help Birds Keep Their Cool”

on August 1, 2009
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National Geographic News: “Giant Toucan Bills Help Birds Keep Their Cool” The brilliantly colored bills of toucans aren’t just eye candy. Rather, they play an essential role in helping the birds control their temperature, scientists report.

The flamboyant toucan is one of the most instantly recognizable birds in the world, and that’s in no small part due to its seemingly oversized, brightly colored bill. Ranging from hues of orange to greens and blues, the toucan bill’s colors were once thought to attract mates or warn away predators, while the large size was thought to be used as a weapon or as a fruit peeler.

What if the toucan’s bill is used for heat regulation?

A team led by Glenn Tattersall of Brock University in Canada had an alternative hunch, however: what if the toucan’s bill is used for heat regulation? The team believed that as a “large uninsulated appendage” with a network of blood vessels, the bill could help toucans rapidly dissipate excess heat. (Toucans call the warm tropical and subtropical areas of the Americas home.)

To test their hypothesis, the team used infrared cameras to photograph captive toucans. When it was hot, the pictures showed that the toucans’ bills were radiating heat from the warm blood circulating inside. When it was cooler, the pictures showed no heat radiation and virtually no blood flow to the bill.

While the research doesn’t rule out the possibility that toucans use their bills for other purposes, it does support the team’s hypothesis about heat release. The team also believes other birds, such as ducks and geese, use the same technique (albeit to a lesser extent).

The study also adds to the idea that some dinosaurs shed excess heat in the same way. Stegosauruses, in particular, are known for the large plates that ran along their spine and may have functioned similarly to the toucan’s bill, though it is nearly impossible to test the idea.

A toucan’s bill is a marvelous sight, and now we know at least one of its fascinating functions—another testimony to the ingenuity and artistry of the Designer.

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