A University of Manitoba student reports in a new study that diving birds reach their 30s and then die quickly and suddenly, showing few signs of aging prior to death. His team’s findings could help us understand the aging process, providing critical insights for our aging population.
The guillemots – which look similar to penguins but can fly – have the highest flight costs of any bird and expend substantial energy for diving. Their high metabolism and frequent dives should produce oxidative stress, causing the birds to deteriorate as they age. But the researchers discovered that the birds stay fit and active as they grow older, maintaining their flying, diving, and foraging abilities.
Kyle Elliott, a PhD student in the Department of Biology at the University of Manitoba and the study’s lead author, said, “Most of what we know about aging is from studies of short-lived round worms, fruit flies, mice, and chickens, but long-lived animals age differently. We need data from long-lived animals, and one good example is long-lived seabirds.”
Elliott added: “Not only do these birds live very long, but they maintain their energetic lifestyle in a very extreme environment into old age.”
One bird, nicknamed Wayne Gretzky by the researchers (after the Canadian hockey great who played 20 seasons and because the bird’s identification band colours matched Gretzky’s team colours), raised young for 18 consecutive years.
The researchers tracked the fitness of a colony of 75 Brünnich’s guillemots (also called thick-billed murres or Uria lomvia) on Coats Island in northern Hudson Bay, Canada, over the course of four summers. They recorded how deep and for how long they would dive for prey, how far and fast they would fly, and how much energy they expended on these activities. They looked for changes in the birds’ behaviour and metabolism.
Elliott is presenting his findings today at the Annual Main Meeting of the Society for Experimental Biology, which began on June 29 at the Salzburg Congress Centre in Salzburg, Austria, and finishes today, July 2, 2012.
He is co-supervised by the U of M’s Drs. Jim Hare and Gary Anderson, and he is supported by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Vanier Scholarship, a Garfield-Weston Northern Studies Award, and the Jennifer Robinson Scholarship. His research funding came through Northern Scientific Training Program, his supervisors’ NSERC Discovery Grants, Sigma Xi and the Animal Behaviour Society. His collaborators on the project come from Environment Canada, the University of Manitoba, and France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.
To see video of the research location and the birds, visit: http://vimeo.com/28066351
A copy of the study can be read at: http://pubs.aina.ucalgary.ca/arctic/Arctic64-4-497.pdf
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