Migratory songbirds are amazing animals that can travel thousands of kilometers across continents and oceans every year.

They face many challenges during their journeys, such as predators, weather, and habitat loss.

One of the most remarkable challenges is flying at high altitudes, where the air is thin and oxygen is scarce.

How do these birds manage to cope with such extreme conditions and maintain their energy levels during flight?

The adaptation of breathing patterns to low oxygen levels


(Photo : JOSEPH EID/AFP via Getty Images)

A recent study, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, has revealed that migratory songbirds adjust their breathing patterns to fly at high altitudes.

The researchers used tiny backpacks to monitor the breathing patterns of yellow-rumped warblers and blackpoll warblers as they flew over the Himalayas.

They found that the birds were able to maintain their oxygen levels by taking deeper breaths and exhaling more completely.

This allows them to extract more oxygen from the air and reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in their blood.

The researchers also found that the birds' heart rates increased as they flew at high altitudes. This suggested that the birds can increase their oxygen uptake by increasing their blood flow.

The increased heart rate also helps to regulate the body temperature of the birds, which can vary greatly depending on the altitude and weather.

The study is the first to show that birds adjust their physiology during the migratory season to maintain oxygen uptake and movement to flight muscles, with some species exhibiting greater adjustments than others.

According to the researchers, this adaptation may have evolved in response to the changing climate and habitat conditions that affect the migratory routes of the birds.

Also Read: Songbird Sings Only One Tune Throughout Its Life, Study Shows

The challenges and benefits of flying at high altitude

Flying at high altitude is not easy for any animal, as it requires more energy and endurance than flying at lower altitudes.

However, flying at high altitude also has some advantages, such as avoiding predators, reducing water loss, and finding favorable winds.

Some migratory songbirds, such as yellow-rumped warblers and blackpoll warblers, are known to fly at high altitudes during their long-distance flights across continents and oceans.

These birds can fly for up to 15 hours without stopping, covering distances of up to 3,000 kilometers.

They can also reach altitudes of up to 4,000 meters above sea level, which is about half the cruising altitude of a commercial jet.

To achieve such remarkable feats, these birds need to prepare themselves before migration.

They need to accumulate fat reserves, which provide them with energy and insulation during flight.

They also need to adjust their body mass and composition, such as reducing their digestive organs and increasing their flight muscles.

Moreover, they need to change their breathing patterns, blood-oxygen binding, and muscle morphology to cope with low oxygen levels at high altitudes.

These adaptations allow these birds to fly at high altitudes and avoid major shifts in temperature and weather patterns caused by climate change.

However, these adaptations also come with some costs, such as increased metabolic rate, oxidative stress, dehydration, and hypothermia.

Therefore, these birds need to balance the benefits and risks of flying at high altitudes and choose the optimal flight strategy for their survival. 

Related article: Some Breeding Songbirds Face a Mismatch as a Result of Climate Change

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