Faculty of Science

Award Allows Chris Guglielmo to Test Some High Flying Ideas

by Mitchell Zimmer

The Distinguished Research Professorship releases faculty from teaching duties for one year so that recipient’s research may focus on an important turning point or a new phase. For Chris Guglielmo of Biology he says that the award “is a chance to look at the effects of pollution or environmental contaminants on migration in birds.”

Guglielmo will spend the major part of this opportunity researching the longer term effects of oil spills on the ability of birds to migrate. “The idea is that lots of birds get oiled but they don’t necessarily die. So what we need to know is, are there effects on their metabolism and their ability to migrate? That’s something we’re uniquely set up here at Western to do … we’re really the only place in the world where we can study the physiology and the ecotoxicology of wild bird species, fly them in a wind tunnel and test this effect.”

The other part of Guglielmo’s work will further utilize the capabilities of the AFAR wind tunnel.  It was designed to be the only bird wind tunnel in the world that can simulate conditions thousands of meters up, “but there is a lot of preparation that has to go into studying the bird under altitude conditions,” says Guglielmo.  “So this is the year where I can do those experiments.”

Added to this is the fact that AFAR is becoming known as one of the only places in the world investigators can study migration in captive wild species.  “It’s only in the last 10 to 20 years where people have been focusing on non-model species,” says Guglielmo.  “We’re one of the only places in the world where you can do that with birds, so now people are starting to recognize that and approach us for projects.”

Historically, the field of toxicology has focused on a dose where fifty per cent of the animals die to determine the toxicity of the pollutant.  Now, in ecotoxicology the emphasis is shifting towards studying contaminants at lower levels so that even when the animals survive, the question now is how they are affected.  “I think that is where the field is going.  To do that kind of work you have to have a way to measure nonlethal end points.” Guglielmo says that it then comes down to two factors, “if you’re interested in animal populations, it’s survival and reproduction.” In his studies Guglielmo is investigating what affects an animal’s survival during migration. “What is interesting is that migration  is a huge physiological challenge.  It’s already difficult to do this successfully when you’re healthy, so now you have the situation where you are exposed to some insult and it’s just enough to make you give up your migration or not do as well as another bird. That can be having effects on the wildlife population.”

The past thirty years have seen declines in the populations of songbirds, shorebirds and in particular insect eating birds like swallows and swifts. Birds that migrate farther are often the the ones that have declined the most. “We still can’t really explain why those certain species seem to be greatly affected and there is a lot of interest”   The AFAR wind tunnel may provide some insights into this problem.  “We’ve already been able to fly birds six hours, so we can simulate a migratory flight,  but with our wind tunnel we can also add other challenges.``  His group can already conduct experiments where they can manipulate factors such as temperature and humidity.  This past year they have showed that humidity had a big effect on metabolism in flight.  Now that the dimension of altitude will be included, they can see if lower oxygen tension has any effect, and mimic the conditions that birds meet in the wild. Guglielmo says that birds, “don’t fly just over the trees, they fly up a few thousand meters because they seek out the tail winds to make these long flights. So if there is any role of trying to fly at altitude then that’s what makes [AFAR] the only place for this work."