Kicking off flight with a protein boost!

A new chapter of my research was just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)!

A Blackpoll Warbler flies in the dark wind tunnel. These are nocturnal migrants, so all of the flights occurred after sundown when they would typically take off for their long flights (and when you get peak levels of sleep-deprived graduate students).

This research shows that migratory warblers flown in a wind tunnel for up to a record-breaking 28 hours burn a lot more protein than we expect in the first few hours of flight. This is surprising because most animals use protein as a fuel of last resort, since it comes from vital organs and muscles (which, yes, are important if you’re flapping non-stop for days on end)! While we don’t know why these birds burn so much protein early in flight, this does help to parse some of the options. For example, maybe they’re just really stressed when they start flying? Or maybe they use this to lighten their load right away by burning up organs that they don’t need while they’re flying, like their gut?

These migratory birds, like the Blackpoll Warbler shown below, are built for this kind of ultra-endurance exercise. But migratory birds are some of the most vulnerable species as the climate changes, so understanding how they use fuel in flight can help us figure out what they really need on their migratory journeys!

One of our captive migratory Blackpoll Warblers flying in the wind tunnel (Image credit: Sherri & Brock Fenton).

You can read more about the research at this UMass Amherst press release or at this Kudos board!

Also, a special thanks to Sherri & Brock Fenton for the wonderful photos of our Blackpoll Warblers in flight in the wind tunnel at the Advanced Facility for Avian Research!

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