Wind tunnel for the birds

January 11, 2007

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SFU biologist Tony Williams is helping to build Canada's first bird wind tunnel, which will help evaluate how climate change is affecting global bird populations.

The high-altitude climate-simulation tunnel will be part of a $9.2-million Advanced Facilities for Avian Research (AFAR) centre planned for the University of Western Ontario (UWO). The Canada Foundation for Innovation will provide almost $4 million for the centre, with UWO and the Ontario government picking up the rest of the tab.

Williams, a physiological ecologist, is collaborating on the tunnel's design and construction with UWO biologist Chris Guglielmo, one of his former PhD students, who first conceived of the device while completing his doctoral thesis at SFU.

Williams will use the tunnel and the centre's other facilities, including walk-in environmental chambers, to experiment with breeding and assessing the health of birds under different temperature conditions.

He says the research will help scientists understand the impact of climate change in a manner similar to the way coal miners once used canaries to tell if gases in mining tunnels were building up to dangerous levels.

“Because birds are abundant and well-studied, they have provided unique long-term data showing that populations are already adjusting timing of migration and timing of breeding in response to climate change,” explains Williams (right), who chairs SFU's biological sciences department.

“What we need to find out is whether the adaptation of all organisms will keep up with environmental change.”

Williams notes that climate change is already causing the breeding time of many birds and seasonal animals to be out of alignment with that of their prey. Usually their breeding times are matched. The 14-metre-long, 7.5-metre-wide, six-metre-high tunnel will be able to simulate the conditions facing migrating birds up to seven kilometers above ground.
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