Sky's no limit in high-аlying goose chase

Apr 14, 2011 By Carrie Arnold
Bar-headed goose, Anser indicus, have white feathers with two black bars striped across both sides of the occiput (head). Credit: USGS

Jessica Meir turns around and looks at the gaggle of geese behind her and asks "Are you guys ready?"

The follow Meir, their "mother", out the door and onto the campus of the University of British Columbia for their daily walk. A postdoctoral researcher in zoology, Meir has acted as a real-life Mother Goose to this group of bar-headed geese for the past year, raising and training them since they were little fuzzy chicks.

Meir's goal was not to turn into the old woman who lived in a shoe or to explore waterfowl husbandry. Instead, knowing that bar-headed goose migrate twice a year across the , Meir had one pressing question: How do they do it?

"Not only are the able to deal with low levels of oxygen, they can support flight at those levels," Meir said.

The birds can cover more than 1,000 miles in a single day on their journey between summer breeding grounds on the steppes of Mongolia to their winter homes in India. Even more astounding to physiologists is that the geese perform these amazing high-altitude feats in air with only one-third the amount of oxygen found at sea level.

"Humans can barely make it to the summit of without supplemental oxygen," said William Milsom, Meir's advisor at UBC in Vancouver. "They're barely taking one step at a time. And here you've got birds that are in active flight, which is one of the most energetically expensive forms of exercise there is."

Flight requires 10-20 times the amount of energy -- and thus about 10-20 times the rate of oxygen usage -- as remaining still on the ground. Humans can barely walk in such oxygen depleted air, yet these birds can outperform even the most elite athletes.

Observed flying at altitudes over 30,000 feet, the bar-headed goose is among the highest flying birds on Earth. Credit: J.M.Garg

Several adaptations enable the bar-headed goose to fly at such : They have larger lungs and breathe more efficiently than other geese, their hemoglobin molecules bind extra tightly to oxygen, transporting it in the blood much more efficiently than in animals living at sea level, and their wing and heart muscles have an unusually dense network of capillaries that feed these oxygen-hungry cells.

These adaptations certainly give the bar-headed goose a metaphorical boost in their ability to soar over the highest mountain range on Earth, but they still don't answer some very basic questions about how an animal can thrive at such low levels of oxygen.

The ultimate answers, Milsom said, would come by monitoring the geese during their Himalayan transit. But monitoring things like how much oxygen the geese use, the rate at which they're burning calories, and how their muscles work requires too much equipment for a 5-pound bird to haul at altitudes of more than 30,000 feet.

Enter Meir and her hand-raised geese.

From the moment they hatched at the Sylvan Heights Waterfowl Park in Scotland Neck, N.C., Meir has nurtured and trained her geese for the experiments they will soon undertake. First, Meir trained the geese to fly alone in a wind tunnel that recreated the blustery Himalayan environment. She then began familiarizing the geese with flying while wearing the equipment used to record data about metabolism and oxygen usage during flight.

With the same moldable plastic used to make athletic mouth guards, Meir made oxygen masks that fit over the bird's beak, allowing her to determine how much oxygen the geese use during flight and control how much oxygen they can breathe in. This way, Meir can use her sea level wind tunnel to simulate the hypoxic conditions of the birds' migration. Meir has also equipped the geese with tiny backpacks to record data on heart rate, metabolism, and muscle movements during flight.

The wind tunnel doesn't perfectly mimic the bird's normal migratory environment, but the ability to control conditions and gather more accurate experimental data more than outweighs the negatives -- much like how treadmills are used in laboratory experiments to measure human running.

"If we can get the birds flying for 20 minutes with all of their gear on, that would be perfect," Meir said.

Besides answering basic questions about bar-headed goose physiology, Meir's and Milsom's work will also help scientists better understand topics that could eventually lead to improved medical care for humans. Since most of the damage caused by a heart attack or stroke occurs when organs are deprived of oxygen-rich blood, learning how these birds survive in levels low enough to potentially kill a human might one day help more victims survive a stroke or heart attack with less permanent damage.

In the meantime, Meir continues to take her geese on their daily training sessions around the Vancouver campus and intends to put her birds to the test over the next few weeks.

Explore further: Male monkey filmed caring for dying mate (w/ Video)

Provided by Inside Science News Service

5 /5 (2 votes)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Conflict with farmers threaten geese

Feb 15, 2006

A Netherlands Institute of Ecology scientist in Yerseke says the survival of pink-footed geese is being endangered by a conflict with farmers.

Personality of geese determines their foraging behaviour

May 21, 2010

When searching for food, slow, shy barnacle geese follow information given by their flock mates. On the other hand, fast, bold geese ignore this type of information and go off in search for food on their own. ...

Polar bears can't eat geese into extinction

Nov 04, 2010

As the Arctic warms, a new cache of resources -- snow goose eggs -- may help sustain the polar bear population for the foreseeable future. In a new study published in an early online edition of Oikos, resear ...

Brent geese show parents know best

Nov 17, 2010

Research from a six year study on migrating geese has discovered an interesting outcome – they return to the same spots they were taken to as youngsters.

Recommended for you

Male monkey filmed caring for dying mate (w/ Video)

Apr 18, 2014

( —The incident was captured by Dr Bruna Bezerra and colleagues in the Atlantic Forest in the Northeast of Brazil.  Dr Bezerra is a Research Associate at the University of Bristol and a Professor ...

Orchid named after UC Riverside researcher

Apr 17, 2014

One day about eight years ago, Katia Silvera, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Riverside, and her father were on a field trip in a mountainous area in central Panama when they stumbled ...

In sex-reversed cave insects, females have the penises

Apr 17, 2014

Researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on April 17 have discovered little-known cave insects with rather novel sex lives. The Brazilian insects, which represent four distinct but re ...

Fear of the cuckoo mafia

Apr 17, 2014

If a restaurant owner fails to pay the protection money demanded of him, he can expect his premises to be trashed. Warnings like these are seldom required, however, as fear of the consequences is enough to ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Biologists help solve fungi mysteries

( —A new genetic analysis revealing the previously unknown biodiversity and distribution of thousands of fungi in North America might also reveal a previously underappreciated contributor to climate ...

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

( —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.