Incubating terns modify risk-taking according to diurnal variations in egg camouflage and ambient temperature

  • Juan A. Amat
  • Jesús Gómez
  • Gustavo Liñán-Cembrano
  • Miguel A. Rendón
  • Cristina Ramo
Original Article


Studies of risk-taking by breeding birds have frequently addressed the effect of brood value on the decisions taken by incubating birds when predators approach their nests. However, leaving eggs unattended during predator disturbance may expose embryos to other potentially harmful factors, to which parent birds should respond when making decisions about when to leave or return to their nest. In this study, we show that diurnal changes in flushing behaviour of incubating terns from nests during predator approach were affected by egg camouflage, the terns allowing a closer approach to individual nests when the eggs appeared better camouflaged. Return times to the nests were affected by ambient temperature, with the terns shortening such times at high ambient temperatures, thus diminishing the risk of egg overheating. As a whole, our results show that the decisions of the birds on when to leave or return to their nests depended on shifting payoffs, as a consequence of diurnal variations in both the thermal risks incurred by embryos and egg crypsis. Environmental costs of risk-taking, such as those considered here, should be addressed in studies of risk-taking by breeding birds. This type of study may have implications for our knowledge of cognitive processes that affect risk-taking.

Significance statement

When a predator approaches a nest, the incubating bird has to decide at which moment to leave the nest, which may be affected by environmental factors that may hamper embryo viability. We studied flushing/returning behaviour of incubating little terns Sternula albifrons in response to disturbance and show that risk-taking was affected by the occurrence of simultaneous environmental threats according to shifting fitness payoffs. When the eggs appeared better camouflaged, which usually occurred around midday, the terns allowed closer approach to individual nests. The terns shortened the return to their nests with increasing ambient temperature, which took place at midday. Thus, our results show that, by adjusting their responses to shifting payoffs, the terns modulated the risks incurred by their offspring, as eggs were less time exposed to direct solar radiation in midday, when the risk of overheating was higher.


Egg overheating Little tern Nest camouflage Parental care Payoffs Predation risk Predator-prey interactions Thermal environment 



We thank Enríque Martínez, Director of Paraje Natural Marismas del Odiel (Consejería de Medio Ambiente, Junta de Anadalucía), for facilities. Kate Lessells and anonymous referees commented on previous versions.

Compliance with ethical standards


Financial support was received from Consejería de Innovación, Ciencia y Empresa of the Junta de Andalucía (PAIDI research group RNM361) and partly from Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovación/EU-ERDF (Grant CGL2011-24230). JG was supported by a predoctoral fellowship from Ministerio de Educación, Cultura y Deporte (FPU12/01616).

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

Consejería de Medio Ambiente from the Junta de Andalucía (Regional Government) gave permission to conduct the study.

Supplementary material

265_2017_2306_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (1.8 mb)
ESM 1 (PDF 1835 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Juan A. Amat
    • 1
  • Jesús Gómez
    • 1
  • Gustavo Liñán-Cembrano
    • 2
  • Miguel A. Rendón
    • 1
  • Cristina Ramo
    • 1
  1. 1.Estación Biológica de Doñana (EBD-CSIC)SevilleSpain
  2. 2.Instituto de Microelectrónica de Sevilla (IMSE-CNM CSIC)Universidad de SevillaSevilleSpain

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