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Funding provides bird’s eye view of climate change

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Contact:    Tony Williams (Burnaby resident), 604.291.4982,
                 Carol Thorbes, PAMR, 604.291.3035,


December 6, 2006
A multi-million dollar research project that involves Tony Williams, an internationally known physiological ecologist and biologist at Simon Fraser University, is taking flight thanks to federal funding.

The Canada Foundation for Innovation has put nearly $4 million into the construction of a $9.2 million facility that will give scientists a bird’s eye view of how climate change is affecting life on Earth. Ontario’s provincial government and the University of Western Ontario — where the advanced facilities for avian research centre will be built — will pick up the rest of the tab.

UWO psychology professor Scott MacDougall-Shackleton is the centre’s lead researcher.

One of Williams’ doctoral graduate students, Chris Guglielmo, is the mastermind behind the design and use of Canada’s first bird wind tunnel, the centerpiece of UWO’s new facility. Guglielmo, a UWO professor, conceived of the high altitude, climatic tunnel for his doctorate at SFU. The tunnel can simulate conditions that migrating birds face up to seven kilometers above the ground.

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

The research centre will enable Williams to use birds to understand the impact of climate change on life the same way scientists used canaries in coal mines to assess the impact of poisonous vapours on people.

“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. “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.

(electronic photo file available on request)