These high-altitude geese are amazing and we’re starting to learn more about them. The way these researchers went about this is also amazing. Raising the geese from a young age, the researchers acted as mothers, feeding them and spending every waking moment with them.
The bird in question, the bar-headed goose, is truly unique. With the ability to soar up to 26,000 feet at long distances, there is plenty to learn about these geese. But why? One reason is they can offer insight into how we as humans deal with high altitudes. These magnificent birds fly from sea-level in India, all the way to the Himalayas (at altitudes where most humans need supplemental oxygen) in a mere 12 hours. Yep, you read that correctly—12 hours.
“Not only do they survive, they do an amazing migration where they go from sea level in India all the way to the passes in the Himalayas without stopping— in just 8-12 hours”–UBC Researcher, Julia York
How, you might ask? Bar-headed geese have a few unique physiological capabilities that give them the ability to fly at high altitudes such as being able to minimize their metabolic rate in low oxygen conditions, their heart rate (unaffected by low oxygen conditions or high altitude), and their ability to drop their blood temperature during flight, which researchers believe help them increase the rate of oxygen to their lungs.
So, how does this all help humans? In the video above, Julia York, a researcher who was involved in the study at UBC, explains what they’re up to in the lab. After raising the geese to trust them, the researchers were able to train 7 of the 19 geese to fly in a wind tunnel with a plastic attachment on their beak and a “backpack” with a heart rate monitor to help understand the magic behind how these geese make long, high-altitude journeys which would kill a human without supplemental oxygen (and wings, of course).
In mammals, we increase our rate of breathing in response to low oxygen, reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in our blood. In geese, the adaptations range from the way they breathe to the way their muscles work and they don’t get altitude sickness. If we can understand how these processes work, we can more likely apply them to humans.
Check out the video to learn more about the work—we hope they can figure out a thing or two about the magnificent bar-headed goose, and maybe then guys can finally catch up to the ladies at high altitudes. —ML