McMaster bird study helps understand human breathing problems

A study by a McMaster University biologist that examines flight patterns of geese could help us understand how to treat humans suffering from oxygen problems.

McMaster biologist studies high-flying geese to learn how to treat humans with oxygen problems

A study by a McMaster University biologist that examines flight patterns of geese could help us understand how to treat humans suffering from breathing problems, like asthma or emphysema.

Graham Scott, and a research team from the U.K., spent over five years in Mongolia studying the migration patterns of bar-headed geese. The bird takes a fight path that Scott says is like running a marathon at the top of the world.

Bar-headed geese are the world’s highest-flying birds. They migrate over the Himalayas – the world’s largest mountain range – and home to the tallest mountain on earth, Mount Everest.

Scientists implanted devices into the geese that measured changes as they soared across the mountains, monitoring heart rates and flight paths to see how they made their journey.

Researchers found the geese fly up and down the mountain range, like a roller coaster.

Scott says the findings are surprising.

“It struck us as odd that these animals would go up and down rather than staying at one altitude,” said Scott.

“Anyone that’s ran a race or cycles knows it’s really hard to run up and down hills and that it’s really challenging because coming back down doesn’t make going up easier,” he said.

Scientists believe the roller coaster pattern helps the geese save energy during migration.

The geese used more energy at higher altitudes and made up for the lack of oxygen there, by flapping their wings harder.

“The bird is doing something we couldn’t even imagine doing as humans. The fact that they can fly across altitudes this high impressed us,” said Scott.

Doing so much where there is so little oxygen suggests the birds’ bodies may hold useful lessons in how we cope with very little oxygen.  

“Lots of different human diseases are a result or lead to a result of having low oxygen in our body,” said Scott.

“To understand how this nature works can help solve problems of human oxygen limitations,” said Scott.

Interesting Facts

The bar-headed goose is the world's highest flying bird, reaching altitudes of 10,000 metres. 

The bird gets its name from the two striking black bars running around the back of its head.

The species breeds in Central Asia in colonies of thousands or more, near mountain lakes.

Bar-headed geese have physiologically and biochemically adapted to flying at altitudes with less oxygen, for example the bird has more capillaries and red blood cells than other bird species, letting their bodies deliver more oxygen to muscle cells faster.

The bird's flight muscles also have more mitochondira - energy-producing structures inside cells - than other birds.

Unlike humans, bar-headed geese can hyperventilate without getting dizzy or passing out.  

While native to Asia, bar-headed geese have been introduced in Canada, Spain and other parts of Europe. 

Learn more about the Bar-headed geese


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