October 14, 2011
WOOSTER, Ohio – John Wingfield provided a bird’s-eye view of global climate change at the third Wooster Forum event of the fall semester on Tuesday night (Oct. 11) in McGaw Chapel.
Wingfield, head of the Biology Directorate at the National Science Foundation and distinguished professor of neurobiology, physiology, and behavior at University of California Davis, said that migratory birds can provide important clues about an organism’s ability to anticipate and adapt to global changes. He observed the behavior of certain species of birds from the Arctic and Antarctic regions, where warming is occurring at an accelerated rate. Among the species he studied were the Snow Bunting and Snow Petrel in an effort to better understand how and why some animals are able to adjust while others are not.
Wingfield noted the undeniable role of humans on what he characterized as global (not just climate) change, and made mention of what many scientists are calling the Anthropocene, an informal geologic clasification of the current period in which humans are having an increased impact on the environment (beginning roughly with the Industrial Revolution and continuing through present day).
“What are the implications of a changing environment,” he asked. “Well, organisms must initiate certain morphological, physiological, and behavioral changes ahead of time. To do that, they must use environmental cues that are predictive, such as the length of the day, (but) they must also be prepared to deal with unexpected changes.”
Climate change can affect habitat, food supply, and a number of other variables, including reproduction, said Wingfield. For example, nine years ago in the Arctic, Wingfield and his research team, which included current College of Wooster associate professor of biology Sharon Lynn, discovered that the Snow Bunting was beginning to produce two nests per year instead of only one because an increase in temperature provided for a longer reproductive season. This caused a shift in the birds' breeding schedule, which ultimately affected molting and other aspects of the birds’ routine.
In general, however, migratory birds have a mechanism for anticipating and adapting to changes in their environment through their endocrine system, specifically the adrenal cortical hormones that help them deal with stress. “Environmental cues set off biochemical events that produce stress hormones,” said Wingfield. “These help to regulate responses to perturbations in the environment.”
Humans share this mechanism for dealing with the unpredictable. “Organisms on earth have to deal with predictable and unpredictable changes,” said Wingfield. “We’re interested not only in why organisms do what they do, but also how. There is still much more work to be done to determine why some make it and some don’t.”
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