Above: Sahas Barve, a Peter Buck Fellow at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., US, studying the museum’s bird collection under a microscope. The researchers say finding a clear pattern across many species emphasises how important feathers are to birds’ ability to adapt to their environments. Photo: Jennifer Renteria

 

FINDINGS FROM A new study could help to predict which birds are vulnerable to climate change simply by studying their feathers.

Using the Smithsonian’s collection of 625,000 bird specimens, Sahas Barve, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, examined feathers from 249 species of Himalayan songbirds. He found that birds from colder, high elevation environments have more fluffy down than lower elevation birds.

The study also found that smaller-bodied birds, which lose heat faster than larger birds, tend to have longer feathers in proportion to their body size and this creates a thicker layer of insulation.

Mr Barve said: “Climate change is driving an increase in the frequency and intensity of extremely cold events like snowstorms. Being able to accurately predict the temperatures a bird can withstand could give us a new tool to predict how certain species might respond to climate change.”

Using a microscope, Mr Barve and team took photos of chest feathers of 1,715 specimens from the cold, high-altitude Himalayan Mountains. They examined how long each feather’s downy section was relative to its total length. The results showed that high-elevation birds had up to 25 per cent more down in their feathers.

“Seeing this correlation across so many species makes our findings more general and lets us say these results suggest all passerine birds may show this pattern,” Mr Barve said.

The researchers plan to follow up this study with experiments into just how much insulation birds get from their feathers. Using the findings from the studies, Mr Barve aims to develop a model that will allow scientists to look at the structure of a bird’s feather and predict how much insulation it gives the bird, which could help identify species vulnerable to climate change.

Carla Dove, who runs the museum’s Feather Identification Lab and assisted with the study, said: “These specimens from the past can be used to predict the future. We don’t know what our specimens will be used for down the line, that’s why we have to maintain them and keep enhancing them.”

The study is published in the journal Ecography.

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