By Joseph Mathieu
Hummingbirds are so fast they’re often not seen, only heard.
But observed in controlled environments, the birds that can weigh less than a nickel and turn on a dime have a lot to show.
Especially to Carleton University’s Roslyn Dakin, who wants to understand how hummingbirds evolved to solve their problems.
“I was always fascinated by evolution,” says Dakin.
“It just seemed like this mind-blowing thing that species could change and that we could understand that process.”
Dakin specializes in behavioural data and analyzing the movements of birds to understand how they control their movement. As she sets up her lab in Carleton’s Department of Biology, she will begin teaching the first-year course Biological Methods, Analysis and Interpretation this fall.
“I’m really excited to teach that to the next generation of biologists,” she says. “If it wasn’t for that foundation of quantitative skills, I wouldn’t be able to address the biological questions that I’m interested in.”
The Hummingbird as a Unique Subject of Study
Due to their high metabolism—and the fact they can beat their wings as much as 50 times a second—hummingbirds need to eat often.
“They have to eat every 10 to 20 minutes. That ends up being a huge advantage for us when we’re studying behaviour,” she says.
“We can set up an environment in the lab that will have them perform a particular behaviour in order for them to feed.”
They are also unique subjects to observe. Hummingbirds are incredibly agile and versatile flyers, the only group of birds that can also fly backwards and hover for extended periods of time. And for a bird that might weigh as much as four raisins, they can be mighty competitors.
“The males also do weird displays for females, either shuttling side to side or flying way up in the air and then diving, swooping over a female’s head.”
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New knowledge could potentially improve the performance of flying drones and autonomous vehicles that need to maneuver in cluttered spaces, and it could change the way large windows and other man-made structures are designed to prevent many, if not all, of hundreds of millions of bird deaths each year.
Dakin began observing pigeon flocks on downtown Kingston rooftops as an undergraduate student at Queen’s University and, for her PhD thesis, she studied how peacocks use rapid movements of their colourful feathers to impress their mates.
The opportunity to study hummingbirds arose as a postdoctorate study with Doug Altshuler at the University of British Columbia. Dakin created experiments in a flight tunnel designed by UBC grad student Tyee Fellows and used software developed by Andrew Straw of the University of Freiburg in Germany.
“I remember the first time I ran a pilot study that successfully altered the way the hummingbirds navigated their environment — I was hooked!”
New Research Only the Beginning
Last February, their study was published in Science. Through sophisticated software, Dakin and her colleagues filmed the flight of more than 200 wild-caught hummingbirds in Costa Rica from 25 different species. Using 200-frames-per-second footage, they recorded more than 330,000 manoeuvers.
They determined that larger hummingbird species are more effective at accelerating and making tight turns, contrary to other types of birds and animals.
The next step is to comb through the data for more revelations about how hummingbird behaviour evolved within and among the different species.
“We do still have questions about that. We’ve published one study on the comparison on these different hummingbird species. But that’s really only the beginning.”
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