Author Archives: morganhaines

Saving Nature’s Music: Tracking the Migration of Swainson’s Thrush

Every year, billions of animals travel long distances in a process called migration. Although animal migration has occurred for millions of years, and is  the largest biological event on Earth, there is still a lot that scientists do not understand.

Songbird migration is especially difficult to track because most birds travel alone at night. Previously, scientists used unique identification markers called bands to track birds. Banding is a very limited technique, as it only provides scientists with two locations of the migratory routes.  This technique provides no information on how the birds got from point A to point B.

Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus) with light-level geolocator
Photo: Kira Delmore

Kira Delmore, a PhD student at the University of British Columbia, used cutting-edge technology called light-level geolocators to track the migration of the Swainson’s Thrush from June 2010 to July 2011. She found that Swainson’s Thrushes in Vancouver and the Sunshine Coast took dramatically different routes to reach their wintering grounds than birds in Kamloops.

“A migratory divide is something where two populations come into contact but they migrate in different directions. [Previous studies] suggested that a divide existed and we’ve been able to confirm this with the geolocators… it’s really the first time that this has been done,” said Kira.

Light-level geolocator
Photo: Morgan Haines

Geolocators weigh about four grams and record light intensity data that researchers use to estimate location. Using this information, Kira was able to determine the different migratory paths taken by both groups of the Swainson’s Thrush.


This video contains more information on geolocators, how researchers catch birds, and discusses a special type of migration called loop migration that Kira was able to document.

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Not only do songbirds provide natural music, they are  important for the ecosystem. If we continue to see declines in their populations, many other species will also suffer.

Kira’s findings have helped identify several locations that are important to the Swainson’s Thrush. “These guys are migrating huge distances, they’re tiny, they need to acquire all the resources they can when they stop. So its really important that these locations are conserved so they can acquire those resources to complete this migration.”

The following podcast contains more information on the importance of songbirds and their conservation.

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Being able to understand the impact of migratory divides will help researchers gain insights into evolution. Now, Kira is trying to uncover “the genes that are associated with migration and migratory routes.”

Light-level geolocators are smaller than a quarter, yet are poised to help solve a mystery as large as the Earth itself. It stands as a testament to the power of science; its ability to use something so small to help understand something so big.

By Morgan Haines, Qianhui Sun, and Nitish Khosla

Delmore, K. E., Fox, J. W., & Irwin, D. E. (2012). Dramatic intraspecific differences in migratory routes, stopover sites and wintering areas, revealed using light-level geolocators.Proceedings. Biological Sciences / the Royal Society,279(1747), 4582.

Fish feminization: An impact of pharmaceutical drugs in our water

Today, there is a pill for almost anything and everything.  Have a headache from studying too much organic chemistry? There’s a pill for that.   Depressed after getting your Chem 233 midterm back?  There’s a pill for that too.  What many people fail to realize is that our increased use of pharmaceutical drugs is having a profound impact on our environment.

Birth control pills
Photo taken from Wikipedia Commons

After consumption, a small percentage of the drugs are excreted into the environment via the sewage systems.  Currently, the vast majority of water treatment facilities do not screen and treat for such drugs because of the high associated cost.

In 1999, the United States Geological Survey reported that over 50 different pharmaceutical drugs were found in rivers and streams across the United States. Just over 10 years later in 2009, they released another report stating that up to 91% of largemouth bass, a common North American fresh water fish found in a river in South Carolina, had both male and female reproductive organs.  This phenomena is called intersex.

Largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides)
Photo taken from Wikipedia Commons

Intersex fish are either infertile or have reduced reproductive ability causing significant declines in the size of populations.

The presence of intersex fish is the result of an imbalance of sex hormones.  Many drugs act as artificial hormones and disrupt the organism’s endocrine system, which is responsible for regulating numerous biological processes.  Birth control pills are especially harmful to the environment as they release large amounts of estrogen, causing male fish to begin to develop as females.  In the same 2009 study, the United States Geological Survey reported finding male fish with female egg cells in their testes.

Although there have been no studies documenting such dramatic effects in humans, the need to reduce the amount of pharmaceutical drugs in our water is clear.

In order to reduce the presence of drugs in our water system, the first step to take is ensuring that all drugs are properly disposed.  Since 1996, the B.C. Medications Return Program has played an important role in this step.  Almost all pharmacies in BC now, at no charge, accept and dispose of unused or expired medications in an environmentally safe way.

If the presence of pharmaceutical drugs in natural water systems continues to increase, not only will many fish species be adversely affected, so to will all the associated species that rely on these fish.

Keep the potential impact of pharmaceuticals on the environment in mind the next time you want to throw away that old bottle of Advil.  Otherwise, Finding Nemo 2 might have to be rebranded as “Finding Nina”.

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By Morgan Haines

One step at a time: Harnessing energy from footsteps

Innovation in renewable energy is needed in order to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels.  Instead of importing energy from other nations, what if there was a way for every country to produce its own energy?   There is, and we are standing on it.

Pavegen Tile
Photo from: flickr

Pavegen tiles work by converting the kinetic energy of a footstep into electrical energy that can be used for numerous applications.  According to Laurence Kemball-Cook, inventor and CEO of Pavegen Systems, the average person takes about 150 million steps within their life time.  If every step was on a Pavegen tile, that would translate into enough energy to “power the average house for around three weeks”, said Kemball-Cook.

Piezoelectric effect: certain materials can generate electricity when a stress is applied to them
Photo from: flickr

Pavegen tiles work by taking advantage of the piezoelectric effect.  Simply put, certain materials can generate electricity when mechanical stress is applied to them.  The most common example of this phenomena is the ignition of a BBQ lighter.  Pressing a button on the lighter causes a small device to hit a piezoelectric material such as a quartz crystal.  Changing the shape of the crystal causes an electrical discharge that ignites the gas.

In this case, that stress is the pressure that we exert with every footstep on the tile.  When a tile is stepped on, it compresses slightly (8mm) and the electrical energy generated is captured and stored in a battery within the tile.  Currently, between 4-8 Watts of electricity are produced every time a Pavegen tile is stepped on.

This technology has proven to be effective in numerous schools and public transportation stations in the United Kingdom.  The majority of the energy stored in the batteries is being used to power LED lights located both on the tiles, and in the hallways in which the tiles are located.  In a station in London, 50% of the energy needed for lighting is now coming from power generated from passengers’ footsteps.

Created in 2009, this technology continues to spread around the world and has recently crossed the pond and was introduced in a public school in New York.

“As we scale up […] it can be comparable to other renewables like solar”, voiced Kemball-Cook at a recent TED talk.  “Think about the amount of untapped energy that we could create”.

Pavegen tiles could offer a solution to our growing energy needs;  that’s one small step for man, 4-8 Watts for mankind.

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By Morgan Haines