A calling to help Australian birds

29 July 2014

ARC Future Fellow Kate Buchanan investigates how birds adapt to change.

Deakin’s Associate Professor Kate Buchanan has received a prestigious ARC Future Fellowship that will allow her to highlight the plight of Australian birds and animals under climate change.

Along with Professor Ester Cerin from C-PAN, Professor Buchanan is one of two Deakin academics to receive a 2014 Future Fellowship - one of Australia’s most prestigious awards for mid-career researchers.

The Fellowships provide four years of funding to outstanding researchers so they can undertake significant research projects “in areas of critical national importance” and encourage researchers to remain in Australia.

“I am delighted to receive this Fellowship, which will offer me the chance to focus my efforts on some new and exciting research,” she said.

Originally from Glasgow, Associate Professor Buchanan crossed the globe in 2008 to join Deakin from Cardiff University, where she was a Senior Lecturer. Working within Deakin’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences, and the Centre for Integrative Ecology, she continues to have a strong research focus on the evolution of signalling behaviour in birds, which she began to study with her PhD on birdsong at the University of London in 1997.

Her new project will aim to quantify the potential for birds to respond to environmental challenges through programming their offspring with adaptive developmental traits. Known as epigenetics (which literally means “above genetics”), this phenomenon can occur when environmental conditions affect evolutionary change, by changing how genes work.

This new project will build upon on-going research currently being undertaken by Professor Buchanan on the impact of environmental stress on the development of song learning in the early life stages of songbirds. Recent research by her collaborators at Flinders University has shown that, in some species, mother birds sing to their eggs as a means of tutoring their offspring. Prof Buchanan’s recent results show that tutored eggs hatch offspring that are preferentially fed by their parents (this is particularly useful if a cuckoo has also laid eggs in the nest).

Future work will investigate whether offspring which learn more quickly or more effectively are also favoured by their parents.

Now, Associate Professor Buchanan and her students will use zebra finches to investigate the ability of opportunistically breeding birds to adapt to climate change. Opportunistically breeding birds are those that can vary their breeding patterns according to climatic conditions.

Depending on their habitat, zebra finches can either have a fairly stable breeding season, between September and November in Northern Victoria, or can breed in short, unpredictable bouts, as in parts of Central Australia. The project will bring together zebra finches from different populations, which will then be bred within modified conditions so that the breeding triggers, such as length of day, rainfall or temperature, can be determined.

“We expect that climate change will cause arid parts of Australia to become more arid, with longer, hotter spells - and some species will find it hard to adapt to these conditions,” said Associate Professor Buchanan.

“The aim of this research will be to identify those species that are more vulnerable to climate change, so conservation efforts can be targeted, perhaps through captive breeding programs.

"We expect a number of bird species will be at risk, such as the emu wrens, which live in spinifex grassland in Central Australia.”

Associate Professor Buchanan added that the research will have relevance for any opportunistic breeding bird species, many of which live in Australia.

“There are virtually no opportunistic bird species in the northern hemisphere because the climate is more predictable,” she said.

“But this research will be very useful for Australia. It will demonstrate the unique biodiversity on this continent and help us understand the mechanisms that have allowed species to adapt to a challenging climatic regime.”

Associate Professor Kate Buchanan Associate Professor Kate Buchanan

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