For the Birds

Between a cornucopia of fish, throngs of insects, and the expansive algae “salad” proffered by the ocean, bird species in the Arctic are rarely at a loss for food. Add in killer wind patterns and a range of nesting sites—from cliffs to meadows—and migrating to the Arctic is quite appealing. Where there are birds, there are researchers who take advantage of the around-the-clock northern light to study everything from ideal living conditions, to avian evolution and breeding strategies, and more. Plus they have the added bonus of conducting fieldwork in beautiful remote places. Here’s a sampling of some of the projects PFS is helping with this summer.

“Lifetime Fitness Consequences of Reproductive Strategies,” Dr. Jim Sedinger, University of Nevada, Reno

Since 1983, Dr. Sedinger has been studying how the reproductive strategy of nesting Brant geese in Chevak, AK, along the Bering Sea coast, has evolved as he investigates whether the nesting birds are behaving optimally (i.e., are the breeding choices they make now maximizing their current and future reproductive success?).

A female Brant goose. Photo by David Stimac

Sedinger and his research team study the birds’ reproductive strategies, including the number of eggs females lay, their attention to the nest, the number of goslings reared, when the eggs hatch, and more. To sample the Brant colony, Sedinger and his colleagues manipulate both the clutch and brood sizes. For example, they take goslings from one nest and give them to other breeding pairs of geese and then they document how the addition of an extra gosling affects the breeding pair’s strategy the following year.

A flock of Brant geese soar overhead. Photo by David Stimac

Do the geese get upset when an egg or gosling goes missing?

Brant eggs in the nest. Photo by David Stimac

“They can’t really count, so we don’t think that really affects them,” said Sedinger.

The study, funded by NSF, allows Sedinger to document and observe the short- and long-term costs and benefits of reproductive strategies. In addition, the study’s longevity provides a unique opportunity to investigate the impacts of how investments birds make early in their reproductive lives impact survival and reproduction.

A nesting pair of Brant geese. Photo by David Stimac

Brant tracks. Photo by David Stimac

“Generally what we’ve seen is that a lot of the variation among the birds seems to be associated with the conditions under which they themselves grew up,” said Sedinger. “If you have good parents that live in the right neighborhood, you have a chance of being successful yourself.”

PolarTREC, Bering Sea Integrated Ecosystem Research Project

The "TREC" part of PolarTREC stands for “Teachers & Researchers Exploring & Collaborating,” and from July 15 to Aug. 15, the collaborators include Thomas Harten, a science teacher from the Prince Frederick, MD., Dan Roby and Rosana Paredes, both of Oregon State university, and Rachael Orben of University of California, Santa Cruz. The team is studying foraging seabirds nesting in the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea. Their focus is on the thick-bulled Murres and blacklegged Kittiwakes and how climate warming and sea ice retreat may impact nesting and population growth.

Harten updates his blog often, and the PolarTREC team also answers individual questions.  The project contributes to a larger collaborative effort between the National Science Foundation and the North Pacific Research Board called the Bering Sea Integrated Ecosystem Research Program.

One of the Murres observed by the scientists. Photo courtesy PolarTREC

Kittiwake with chick. Photo courtesy PolarTREC

Examining the molecular and neurobiological mechanisms that regulate the circadian rhythm in the Lapland Longspur, Noah Ashley, University of Alaska.

In this NSF-funded study, post-doctoral fellow Noah Ashley is studying how the arctic breeding songbird, the Lapland Longspur’s (Calcarius lapponicus) circadian rhythms are regulated. Credited for the deep, restorative sleep that makes life possible, circadian rhythms help most organisms organize their behavior based on time and daylight. However, the Arctic’s continuous summer light (or darkness in the winter) causes many polar animals to abandon their circadian rhythm—with the exception of the Lapland Longspur. This bird follows these rhythms, despite the outside conditions.

Lapland Longspur. Photo at—Lapland-Longspur.htm

Ashley’s study will use neurobiological techniques to examine patterns of clock gene expression in the hypothalamus and pineal gland. He’ll correlate gene expression with biological rhythms in free-living longspurs, evaluate whether those expressions are endogenous (or driven internally) and if they entrain to low-amplitude zeitgebers (signals to sleep, like light) of polar day. The study aims to further the understanding of the molecular and neurobiological basis of circadian function in polar animals.