Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2010
THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE NOME FOR PROFESSOR RESEARCHING MIGRANT SHOREBIRDS
MANHATTAN -- The small town of Nome on the western coast of Alaska is best known to the world as the finish line for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. But for Kansas State University's Brett Sandercock, associate professor of biology, the area has far more importance.
Every spring thousands of migratory shorebirds fly more than 6,000 miles from the equator to Alaska to breed, but little is known about how these birds are being affected by environmental changes in the Arctic.
Nearly $500,000 in funding from the Nongame Partner Program of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and the Arctic Natural Science Office of Polar Programs through the National Science Foundation, will allow Sandercock to evaluate changes in the population biology of two species of long-distance migrant shorebirds, the semipalmated sandpiper and the western sandpiper.
"I think of them as the canary in the coal mine," Sandercock said. "They are the species that are probably going to show impacts of environmental change first. In terms of wildlife conservation, it is absolutely amazing to see the enormous pulse of migratory birds moving synchronously in large flocks, although these same traits may make them vulnerable to human activities."
When he began his career at K-State, Sandercock wanted to start a local research program, so a large portion of his current research is on grassland birds in Kansas. But his affection for the tundra, arctic weather and northern wildlife take him back to Alaska. As part of his doctoral dissertation research from 1993-1996, Sandercock spent time among the tundra ridges and fresh water ponds of Nome, studying sandpiper behavior.
"Part of my heart has always been in the North," Sandercock said. "For me it's a chance to go back to the familiar areas and beautiful country where I worked in the past."
The new funding allows Sandercock to build on the data from his graduate research and to continue his research and teaching duties during the school year at K-State.
"From the first four years, we know that the birds show good site fidelity," Sandercock said. "However, there has never been baseline data for this type of study before because other researchers' previous plots in the Arctic have sometimes been affected by the expansion of surrounding towns. My plots, though, remain unchanged, so we can actually go back and look at birds with the same study protocols that I used 15 years ago. We can make direct comparisons."
The grants also give Sandercock the opportunity to purchase technology and continue to develop the Arctic Shorebird Demographic Network. This is an international program of researchers, which Sandercock and his colleagues have recruited to collect data on long-distance migrant shorebirds at Arctic sites across Alaska and northern Canada.
"There is some evidence of certain groups of European birds that suggests that long-distance migrants may have greater trouble adapting to environmental change, and some of those species are declining faster than short-distance migrants," Sandercock said.
Among the high-tech devices that will be used during the new research are geo-locator tags, which measure latitude and longitude throughout the bird's migration. To track the complete migratory movements during the course of the year, the tags will be attached to the birds at the breeding site and recovered from birds returning the following year, Sandercock said.
Analysis of migration patterns, and how they might differ between the two species, and among sex and age classes, will enable Sandercock to explore the different strategies the birds are using, and how those strategies might be impacted by environmental change.
"I think these birds have an intrinsic value as a migratory species," Sandercock said. "Potentially they are the ones that are going to be signals of environmental change because they have less flexibility in timing their migration. Trying to understand their strategies, both in the Arctic breeding grounds and throughout migration, may help us predict or mitigate effects of environmental change in other species."