11/29/2016 Peter Durantine

Observing How Birds Adapt in Changing Climates

From Alaska’s harsh climates and Wyoming’s high altitudes to more temperate conditions in Tennessee and New York, a Franklin & Marshall College biology professor is among a team of researchers studying how the tree swallow adapts to Earth’s rapidly changing environment. 

“We think we are answering a very fundamental question in behavioral biology – how organisms deal with environmental variability,” said Associate Professor of Biology Daniel Ardia.

Ardia is collaborating with Maren Vitousek, an assistant professor of biology at Cornell University, under a National Science Foundation collaborative grant. The large research team includes one F&M student, Yosvany Rodriguez, a junior animal behavior major. 

  • F&M Professor Ardia, behind Cornell Professor Vitousek in blue coat, is in the field with the swallow research team that includes F&M junior Rodriguez (wearing cap). F&M Professor Ardia, behind Cornell Professor Vitousek in blue coat, is in the field with the swallow research team that includes F&M junior Rodriguez (wearing cap).

F&M’s research on the four-year project is strictly fieldwork. Tree swallows are studied because they are found throughout North America. Ardia’s team went to a remote region of Alaska last summer, where daylight is 24 hours, and will return next summer to finish its work.

“We need two seasons in Alaska because there are just not enough birds to get a sufficient sample size,” Ardia said.

The team has been to New York, and plans to to go to Tennessee and Wyoming in summer 2018.

“Our intent is to understand how organisms adapt to a variable world, especially in the context of how rapidly changing our current environment is,” Ardia said. “We test whether bird populations in environmentally harsh places solve that problem in different ways behaviorally and physiologically than same-species populations that are found in less-harsh environments.”

The study largely centers on female swallows, primarily during breeding season. Researchers are examining their stress hormones as an indicator of how birds cope with stress, Ardia said.

“We predict that in places like Alaska, where the birds are dealing with more difficult conditions, they suppress the increase in stress in order to breed for a particular year to produce offspring,” he said. “But they may suffer future costs such as lower survival. Essentially you trade off future success for current success.”

Ardia believes the research will provide insights into strategies for coping with climate change. 

“It might give us a sense for what the future population distributions could be,” he said. “It might aid our understanding in conservation, or it might just show us that sometimes things get so difficult that some organisms can’t make it.”

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