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Mechanical determinants of nectar feeding strategy in hummingbirds: energetics, tongue morphology, and licking behavior

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To explore the mechanical determinants of feeding strategies for nectar feeders, we develop a fluid dynamical and behavioral model describing the mechanics and energetics of capillary feeding in hummingbirds. Behavioral and morphological data for Calypte and Archilochus are used to test and illustrate this model. We emphasize the important differences between capillary and suction mechanisms of fluid feeding. Model predictions of nectar intake rates and nectar volumes per lick are consistent with observed values for Calypte anna. The optimal nectar concentration maximizing rate of energy intake depends on tongue morphology and licking behavior. For hummingbirds exhibiting optimal licking behavior, the optimal nectar concentration is 35–40% sucrose for feeding on large nectar volumes. For small nectar volumes, the optimal concentration is 20–25%. The model also identifies certain tongue morphologies and licking frequencies maximizing energy intake, that are consistent with available observations on licking behavior and tongue design in nectar feeding birds. These predictions differ qualitatively from previous results for suction feeding in butterflies.

The model predicts that there is a critical food canal radius above which suction feeding is superior to capillary feeding in maximizing the rate of energy intake; the tongues of most hummingbirds and sunbirds fall above this critical radius. The development of suction feeding by nectarivorous birds may be constrained by the elastic properties of their flexible tongues. Our results show that, in terms of morphology, scaling, and energetics, different mechanisms of feeding on the same food resource can lead to qualitatively different predictions about optimal design and feeding strategies.

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Correspondence to Joel G. Kingsolver.

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Kingsolver, J.G., Daniel, T.L. Mechanical determinants of nectar feeding strategy in hummingbirds: energetics, tongue morphology, and licking behavior. Oecologia 60, 214–226 (1983).

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  • Nectar Volume
  • Food Canal
  • Feeding Bird
  • Suction Feeding
  • Nectar Feeding