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Birds on the Brain

University of Montana researcher Tom Martin has been awarded a $600,000 grant to study the differences between populations of tropical birds in Asia and those in Africa and South America.

Martin, assistant unit leader of UM’s Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, earned the three-year grant from the National Science Foundation. His study area will be the mountainous jungles of Kinabalu Park, located in the Malaysian portion of the island of Borneo.

“I am going there Feb. 15 for five weeks,” Martin said. “I’m taking six University graduates who worked with me in South America, so they are all good at dealing with tropical jungles.”

Martin landed the grant because he noticed a huge global divergence among tropical birds on different continents. In Africa and South America, the birds generally don’t lay many eggs, develop slowly and live a long time – especially in comparison to North American birds. In the Asian tropics, birds apparently develop just as quickly as those in North America and lay nearly as many eggs – there isn’t a lot of data – but they still have the long tropical life spans. Why is this?

A key part of Martin’s research will be studying how development speed and clutch sizes affect bird abilities to fight off diseases and parasites.

Martin hopes to rent a cabin in Kinabalu Park to serve as the headquarters for his research. Then he and his workers, most of them preparing for grad school, will disappear daily into the jungle to work at their study plots, searching for the small, hidden nests necessary to accomplish the studies. Martin intends to work five weeks in Borneo for the next three years, but his assistants will stay in the field for four and a half months each year.

“You have to work in the rain a lot because it rains every day,” he said. “It’s hard work, because it really beats on you.”

Martin, who has been continuously funded by the NSF since 1986, will study 25 to 30 Asian bird species.

“From a pure bird standpoint, this research can help us understand the underlying causes driving the health of bird populations the world over,” Martin said. “I’ll be comparing the birds in Asia to birds I have studied in South America, as well as here in Montana and another site in Arizona.

“But on top of that, it can give us insight for humans in terms of how development influences our ability to fight off diseases and increase our longevity,” he said. “We have learned a lot about human systems by understanding the variation that exists in animals.”