../Morning Post
Posted October 8, 2009

Advanced Facility for Avian Research Opens at Western

London – A new research facility containing the world’s first hypobaric bird wind tunnel, which allows researchers to study avian flight while altering such variables as air pressure, moisture, humidity and altitude, has opened at The University of Western Ontario.

The new 13,000-square-foot Advanced Facility for Avian Research (AFAR) is also home to cutting-edge laboratories devoted to learning how changes in the environment affect birds’ neural and physiological systems, and their reproduction and migration patterns.

“The wind tunnel and other facilities are used to understand migration, reproduction and survival over winter, which are difficult to measure in nature,” says Scott MacDougall-Shackleton, the facility’s principal investigator.

Funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Ontario Research Fund and private partners, the $9.2-million facility allows researchers to understand birds’ abilities to adapt to environments, which provides important insight into conservation efforts, ecosystem health, disease and understandings of how birds respond to climate change.

“Birds are also an important model for neuroscience,” MacDougall-Shackleton adds. “Many breakthroughs have been made on birds, then mammals, including advances in knowledge related to neuroplasticity – which is the reorganization of neurons in the brain based on experience.”

With studies of at least a dozen species ongoing at any given point, full consideration has been paid to ensure the birds live in as comfortable and realistic semi-natural environments as possible.

Special chambers also allow researchers to reflect seasonal changes by varying light and the temperature from two to 40 degrees Celsius, which is particularly significant to studies of breeding patterns. Other behavioural study space will allow researchers to measure spatial cognition or to control what birds are able to hear, including vocalizations and communication from other birds. Like humans, birds are able to learn vocalizations, singing in response to song.

“It’s the old ‘canary in the coal mine’ – birds are markers of the ecosystem,” MacDougall-Shackleton concludes.

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