During the course of their lives many vertebrates live and forage in environments characterized by different salinities and must therefore respond to changes in salt intake. This is particularly true for numerous species of migratory waterbirds, especially those that routinely commute between saltwater and freshwater wetlands throughout their annual cycle and/or within a season. These birds have evolved a suite of morphological, physiological and behavioural mechanisms to successfully maintain osmoregulatory balance. However, relatively little is known about the impacts of salinity on the distribution, physiological performance and reproductive success of waterbirds. Here I review the current knowledge of the physiological and behavioural mechanisms through which waterbirds cope with contrasting salinities and how some of the adjustments undertaken might interfere with relevant aspects of their performance. I argue that, because of their strong reliance on wetland ecosystems for foraging and breeding, waterbirds may be particularly vulnerable to climate-induced changes in salinity, especially in arid or semiarid tropical areas where increases in both temperature and salinity may affect their body condition and, ultimately, survival prospects. I conclude by offering some suggestions for future research that could take us beyond our current level of understanding of avian osmoregulation.
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Vol. 61 • No. 2