Climate crisis is driving cousins of The Lion King character to local extinction
Southern yellow-billed hornbill at study site. Credit: Nicholas Pattinson

The yellow-billed hornbill, a cousin of Zazu from The Lion King, is in danger of extinction due to the climate crisis. The breeding success of southern yellow-billed hornbills in the Kalahari Desert was studied by researchers. The impact of the climate crisis on population-level breeding success is the subject of a study.

Extreme climates are getting harsher because of the climate crisis, such as the high temperatures and the frequent and intense dry spells associated with arid regions.

The consequences are already being felt by the animals. Warming climate has been shown to affect the breeding success of bird species. They are breeding earlier and for less time.

There is rapidly growing evidence for the negative effects of high temperatures on the behavior, physiology, breeding, and survival of various bird, mammal, and reptile species around the world.

For example, heat-related mass die-off events over the period of a few days are increasingly being recorded, which no doubt pose a threat to population persistence.

The breeding success of the southern yellow-bill hornbill, an arid-zone bird, over a period of 10 years, has been researched by Pattinson and his colleagues. The study was published in a journal.

The hornbill is yellow.

Most of southern Africa is included in the distribution of the yellow-billed hornbill. Their population numbers are thought to be declining.

The southern yellow-billed hornbill is a socially monogamous species. The female seals herself into the nest and stays there for an average of 50 days to care for her offspring. The male feeds the female and chick through a narrow slit.

The type of nest protects from predator and means that breeding success depends on other factors such as climate and food availability. The hottest days of the year correspond with the start of yellow-billed hornbills breeding. It's difficult to shift breeding dates outside of the hottest periods.

Population collapse.

The population of yellow-billed hornbills was studied by a group of people. There were pairs breeding in wooden nest boxes. Long term trends and individual breeding attempts were looked at. Climate trends for the region were analyzed by the team.

The breeding output collapsed due to the increased maximum air temperature.

The chance of hornbills breeding successfully or even breeding at all was reduced by the effects of high temperatures during the monitoring period.

The researchers found that the average percentage of occupied nest boxes declined, nest success declined, and successful raising and fledging of at least one chick declined in the last three seasons.

There were no breeding attempts above the threshold air temperature. The effects were present even in dry years.

Climate crisis is fast.

The fast pace at which the climate crisis is taking place is having severe negative effects on charismatic species. Current warming predictions show that the hornbill's threshold for successful breeding will be exceeded by the end of the breeding season.

The public perception of the effects of the climate crisis is related to scenarios calculated for the future.

Despite no large die-off events, our prediction in this study is that southern yellow-billed hornbills could be extirpated from the hottest parts of their range as soon as 2027.

Sub-lethal consequences of high temperatures may drive local extinctions by resulting in recruitment failure and changes to the environment on which we all depend.

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