Prof. Andrew McKechnie

Andrew McKechnie


Prof. Andrew E. McKechnie

Department of Zoology and Entomology

University of Pretoria
Pretoria, 0002
South Africa


Tel: +27 12 420 3232
Fax: + 27 12 362 5242


Andrew McKechnie is a Professor in the Department of Zoology and Entomology at the University of Pretoria. He obtained his PhD from the University of Natal in 2002, where his postgraduate research focused on the ecology and evolution of avian heterothermy. Thereafter, he spent two years as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of New Mexico before returning to South Africa in 2004 to take up a position at the University of the Witwatersrand, where he remained until moving to the University of Pretoria in early 2008. He was acting Deputy Dean: Research and Postgraduate Studies in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences during the period August 2014 to March 2015. He has been a core team member of the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town since the Centre was established in 2004. He is currently Associate Editor for two journals, namely Climate Change Responses and Emu – Austral Ornithology, and is a member of the editorial board of Journal of Comparative Physiology B. 

Research interests

My research interests fall into three major areas:
Physiological approaches to predicting climate change impacts on arid-zone birds

Empirical data on the temperature dependence of a suite of physiological and behavioural variables are needed to parameterise models linking current and future climates to survival and reproduction over time scales ranging from hours to seasons. One key aspect of this work involves quantifying variation among and within species in heat tolerance limits and evaporative cooling capacities; this information is vital for understanding whether birds will be able to cope with more frequent and intense heat waves.

Avian physiological diversity: integrating sources of phenotypic variation

This component of my research program seeks to understand how different sources of phenotypic variation in physiological traits interact with each other and contribute to physiological diversity. My work in this area has focused primarily on metabolic rates, and to a lesser extent evaporative water loss rates. My approach involves a combination of experimental work under laboratory conditions, investigation of physiological variation in free-ranging populations, and synthetic analyses of published data.

Ecology and evolution of heterothermy

My work on heterothermic responses in birds relies on three complementary approaches: quantifying heterothermy under natural conditions in order to better understand the phylogenetic distribution and ecological determinants of heterothermic responses, experimental manipulations of energy balance to elucidate proximate determinants of heterothermic responses, and bioenergetic modeling and literature reviews.

Key publications

McKechnie, A.E., Whitfield, M.C., Smit, B., Gerson, A.R., Smith, E.K., Talbot, W.A., McWhorter, T.J. and Wolf, B.O. 2016. Avian thermoregulation in the heat: efficient evaporative cooling allows for extreme heat tolerance in four southern Hemisphere columbidsJournal of Experimental Biology 219: 2145-2155.

McKechnie, A.E., Smit, B., Whitfield, M.C., Noakes, M.J., Talbot, W.A., Garcia, M., Gerson, A.R., & Wolf, B.O. 2016. Avian thermoregulation in the heat: evaporative cooling capacity in an archetypal desert specialist, Burchell's sandgrouse (Pterocles burchelli). Journal of Experimental Biology 219: 2137-2144.

Gerson, A.R., Smith, E.K., Smit, B., McKechnie, A.E. & Wolf, B.O. (2014) The impact of humidity on evaporative cooling in small desert birds exposed to high air temperatures. Physiological and Biochemical Zoology, 87, 782-795.

McKechnie, A.E., Hockey, P.A.R. & Wolf, B.O. (2012) Feeling the heat: Australian landbirds and climate change. Emu, 112, i-vii.

McKechnie, A.E. & Wolf, B.O. (2010) Climate change increases the likelihood of catastrophic avian mortality events during extreme heat waves. Biology Letters, 6, 253-256.

Smit, B., Harding, C.T., Hockey, P.A.R. & McKechnie, A.E. (2013) Adaptive thermoregulation during summer in two populations of an arid-zone passerine. Ecology, 94, 1142-1154.

Whitfield, M.C., Smit, B., McKechnie, A.E. & Wolf, B.O. (2015) Avian thermoregulation in the heat: scaling of heat tolerance and evaporative cooling capacity in three southern African arid-zone passerines. Journal of Experimental Biology, 218, 1705-1714.


Dr. Susan Cunningham

Susan Cunningham


Dr. Susan J. Cunningham
Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology
DST-NRF centre of Excellence
University of Cape Town
Rondebosch, 7701
South Africa


Tel: + 27 21 650 33 06
Fax: + 27 21 650 32 95

Susie is a lecturer at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute, University of Cape Town. She has been involved in the Hot Birds programme since 2010, initially as a post-doc with Prof. Phil Hockey and later as PI of the behaviour side of the programme. She works closely with Andrew McKechnie on projects integrating behavioural and physiological approaches to understand the thermal biology of birds.
Susie is a New Zealander and completed her undergraduate degrees in Ecology & Biodiversity and Classical Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, and her PhD on tactile sensory systems in birds at Massey University. She moved to South Africa in 2010 and spent her first field season in the Kalahari over the summer of 2010/11. The focus of Susie’s and her students’ field work is on the relationship between thermal biology and behavioural ecology, in particular the fitness consequences of behavioural thermoregulation. 

Research interests

Understanding the vulnerability of arid zone birds to climate change

A major focus of Susie’s current research is the use of mechanistic approaches to understand the potential vulnerability of different bird species to climate change. Together with her collaborators and students, she studies the behavioural and ecophysiological responses of birds to high temperatures, with a focus on fitness consequences associated with thermoregulatory trade-offs. Susie works closely with Andrew McKechnie and Ben Smit (NMMU) on these questions, using predominantly Kalahari species, but also fynbos birds, as model taxa.

Behavioural ecology in a changing world

Susie is interested in the behavioural flexibility of animals in the face of ecological change: how environmental factors, particularly temperature and aridity, drive behavioural decisions. She is especially interested in the consequences of these decisions for individual fitness, sociality, and the evolution of life history strategies.

Sensory ecology

When not in the Kalahari, Susie continues work on the non-visual senses used by animals –especially birds - in foraging and social interactions, the ecological pressures that favour non-visual senses, and the connections between sensory systems and behaviour. 

Key publications

van de Ven, T.M.F.N, Martin, R.O., Vink, T.J.F., McKechnie, A.E., & Cunningham, S.J. 2016. Regulation of heat exchange across the hornbill beak: functional similarities with toucans? PLoS ONE doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0154768

Cunningham, S.J.*, Madden, C.*, Barnard, P. & Amar, A. 2016. Electric crows: powerlines, climate change, and the emergence of a native invader. Diversity & Distributions DOI: 10.1111/ddi.12381. *joint first authors

Milne, R., Cunningham, S.J., Lee, A. & Smit, B. (2015). The role of thermal physiology in recent declines of birds in a biodiversity hotspot. Conservation Physiology doi:10.1093/conphys/cov048.

Cunningham, S.J., Martin, R.O., & Hockey, P.A.R. (2015). Can behaviour buffer the impacts of climate change on an arid-zone bird?Ostrich: Journal of African Ornithology 86(1&2): 119-126.

Martin, R.O., Cunningham, S.J., & Hockey, P.A.R. (2015) Elevated temperatures drive fine-scale patterns of habitat use in a savannah bird community. Ostrich: Journal of African Ornithology 86(1&2): 127-135.

Cunningham, S.J., Martin, R.O., Hojem, C.L. & Hockey, P.A.R. (2013). Temperatures in excess of critical thresholds threaten nestling growth and survival  in a rapidly-warming arid savanna: a study of common fiscals. PLoS ONE 8(9):e74613.

Cunningham, S.J., Kruger, A.C., Nxumalo, M.P. & Hockey, P.A.R. (2013). Identifying biologically meaningful hot-weather events using threshold temperatures that affect life-history. PLoS ONE8:e82492.

Du Plessis, K.L., Martin, R.W., Hockey, P.A.R., Cunningham, S.J. & Ridley, A.R. 2012. The costs of keeping cool in a warming world: implications of high temperatures for foraging, thermoregulation and body condition of an arid-zone bird. Global Change Biology18:3063-3070.