UM Program Receives $2 Million for Bird Research in Asia

By STAFF for the Flathead Beacon

A Bornean Stubtail (Urosphena whiteheadi), an endemic species, at the entrance of its nest. – Courtesy photo
By Beacon Staff, 10-18-12

A University of Montana professor is part of a group of scientists that received a $2 million grant to study the impacts of climate change on the development and survival of two families of birds in southeast Asia.

Professor Tom Martin, a senior scientist with the Montana Wildlife Cooperative Research Unit, believes his upcoming research will have a major impact on science’s understanding of how species form and how physiology may influence longevity along with the implications of climate change.

The National Science Foundation awarded Martin and four others a $2 million grant to pursue the study, which is titled “Dimensions: Collaborative Research – Historical and contemporary influences on elevational distributions and biodiversity tested in tropic Asia.” The study is partnered with the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Kansas and Louisiana State University. A large sum of the NSF grant, $1.3 million, will go to UM for the study, and Martin will lead a group of student researchers to the tropical island Borneo to study birds in the Sylvoidea and Muscicapidae families from the beginning of February to the middle of June.

“If the hypotheses work out, we’re going to make major changes in thinking about speciation events, elevation distributions and even possible extinction events,” Martin said in a statement.

Martin said the study is happening at a crucial time for the tropics. Tropical habitats around the world are being destroyed and with them a whole dearth of information about species – some of which have never been described or studied.

“The incredible tropical diversity is just getting lost at a phenomenal rate,” Martin said. “Things like what we’re doing, where we’re actually doing intense study of actual breeding, nobody does that in the tropics. We don’t have hardly any information.”

The study will examine the effects of elevation and temperature change on the tropical birds, which are ideal test subjects due to their narrow tolerance for environmental shifts, according to Martin. Scientists will also study factors such as competition alongside physiological tolerance to see how several things could have a cumulative influence on species development. Martin said these hypotheses have hardly been discussed in the scientific community, let alone studied.

“One of the things that’s becoming increasingly recognized, especially in the tropics, is that as things warm up, some species don’t have the physiological tolerance to deal with global warming,” Martin said. “So they’re being pushed up the mountain, and the species that are at the top of the mountain are then being pushed off. There’s no habitat that’s suitable for them.”

Martin will use a team of three doctoral students and about 10 postgraduate students to perform an on-the-ground study of the birds in their tropical habitat. They will find nests, measure eggs, take temperature probes, record video of the parental behavior and more. The group also will measure the metabolism of eggs, nestlings and adults in the lab – before returning them safely to the wild – to see how changes in temperature affect the most basic bodily functions of the birds.

Martin said the two bird superfamilies have broad variation within their species, which allows for detailed study of the impact of small changes on related subjects. Even the wild behavior of the birds is a good indicator of the importance of temperature on their development.

“If you look at the Sylvoidea, you have a species there where parents will spend 90 percent of the time on the nest and the embryos will develop in 13 days,” Martin said. “And then you have another species there that takes eight-hour off-bouts every day in the middle of the day, and so they’re only on the nest 40 percent of the time and their embryos ­– same size – take 24 days.

Researchers at the Smithsonian, Kansas and Louisiana will study separate data gathered from the birds, such as genetics of the populations and the potential parasites identified in blood smears. The team will take a cross-disciplinary look at the biology, behavior and impact of external factors on the birds to develop a better understanding of what causes species to separate. The predominant theory of competition doesn’t explain current developments, according to Martin.