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Graduate Student Uncovers Mystery about Bar-Headed Geese

Graduate Student Uncovers Mystery about Bar-Headed Geese

Bar-headed geese have long been an interest of researchers for their unique ability to survive in a variety of altitudes in their annual migration patterns. In the span of 8 to 12 hours, bar-headed geese experience an elevation change of over 26,000 feet as they travel from the Himalayas to the Tibetan highlands in China and Mongolia.

The enhanced ability of bar-headed geese to bind oxygen in their hemoglobin, which moves large quantities of oxygen to individual cells, has been known for decades. But until recently, why this was possible was a mystery to researchers. In a study published in the journal eLife (and covered in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Scientist, and WIRED), Julia York, University of Texas at Austin researcher, became a mother to several bar-headed geese in an effort to answer this question.

Baby geese do something called imprinting, which means they instantly bond with the first large figure they see after hatching. Previous studies on bar-headed geese have used treadmills, but York and her team utilized their unique connection with the birds to coerce the birds to take it a step further by using wind tunnels.

Using a 30-yard-long tunnel, York and her team of researchers fitted the geese with masks and sensors to gauge their heart rate, temperature and gases in their blood as they flew. The setup allowed researchers to control the air the geese breathed. York had to keep her hands free during the trials to clap and encourage the geese, which weren't driven by offers of food.

The study found that as the geese flew in conditions with less oxygen, the temperature of the blood in their veins decreased. When blood is cold, it can carry more oxygen than when it's warm. This research might have applications for medical treatment in people who have been oxygen deprived, such as those with lung disease or heart problems.

York is now a Ph.D. candidate in the Ecology, Evolution and Behavior graduate program at UT Austin working in labs associated with the departments of Integrative Biology and Neuroscience.

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Tuesday, 19 November 2019

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