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BYU-Hawaii team researches Pacific Golden-Plovers in Saipan

Mike Foley | University Advancement | 24 May 2005

BYU-Hawaii Biology Department chairman Dr. Roger Goodwill and several students recently returned from Saipan in the Northern Marianas Islands where they initiated radio telemetry and DNA study fieldwork on Pacific Golden-Plover, a migratory shorebird known as kolea in Hawaii.

The fieldwork team included Saipan-based colleagues and students, and plover expert Dr. Oscar Johnson and his wife and research assistant, Pat, from Montana State University. Student members of the team included Amber Kittleman, an elementary education major who works for the BYU-Hawaii Museum of Natural History; Cali Payne, a biology major graduating in June; and Deanna Hall, also a biology major. Stacey Philipoom, a junior biology major, will do an internship this summer in Alaska based on the study.

While not on this trip, Phillip Bruner, BYU-Hawaii Assistant Professor of Biology and Director of the university's outstanding museum, is also working with the team. He has been studying the species for many years in Hawaii and Alaska. Goodwill helped establish the biology program at Northern Marianas community college in Saipan and is familiar with the area.

"The kolea winters here, and the same species but a significantly different population is over in Micronesia," said Bruner. "Last year we went over there to see how many there might be. The thought was maybe we should begin to look at things like the longevity and territoriality of plovers in the western Pacific, and also try to determine whether these birds go to Alaska or the Russian Far East when they leave Saipan."

"There have a been a number of telemetry studies that clearly show there's a link between Hawaii and Alaska. So, the question really became, do the majority of these birds in Saipan, which is at least 3,000 miles west of here, winter in Saipan and breed in Russia or Alaska. The logical assumption is they breed in Russia, but nobody's ever looked at the Saipan plovers until now."

Goodwill explained the team went to Saipan near the end of March before the birds started migrating. "We placed colored plastic leg bands on 36, which is good because they're hard to catch. Out of the 36, 24 were also fitted with radio transmitters as well. Part of what we were trying to determine is when the birds leave to go to the Arctic."

"Once you band them, you can find out where their territory is," Bruner said. "The assumption is the birds do the same thing in Saipan as they do in Hawaii. In other words, if you can identify where they are this year, next year you can see how many return and if there's a differential mortality. For example, if you mark 100 birds with leg bands in Hawaii, you'll get about 80 of them returning."

"We don't know about Saipan," he added, but noted the leg bands will help indirectly determine that "if none of them turn up in Alaska, they're more than likely in Russia (where nobody is tracking them)."

"The team also took DNA tissue samples. Shane Gold, one of our new teachers, is working with people in Alaska, and one of our students is going there on internship to Alaska to work in a genetics lab. They'll be looking for a genetic marker in the Saipan population that is unique there," said Bruner. "They'll compare that with the plovers from Alaska to see if they have the same DNA. We also have a lot of feather samples in our BYU-Hawaii from which we can get DNA, which is another way we can tell."

Bruner added the Saipan study opens the door for eventually finding answers to long-term questions: What percentage of the Saipan birds are territorial? If there's a difference in their behavior, why is that the case? What is the average life span there? "The average life span of the plovers that come here is about five years," he said.

Also, is there a difference in the sex ratio? And is there a difference between when males and females leave? "In Hawaii it's kind of anecdotal that the males leave before the females by a few days," Bruner said. "This year we actually became more scientific. About 90% of the population departs over a period of about 10 days, around April 20th. We've got lots of data to show that's true.

"But that may not be true in Saipan, where the birds don't have to fly non-stop. They can 'refuel' along the way, so their departure time may not be quite as close.

Goodwill said his colleague, John Furey and his students from the Northern Marianas College, are currently monitoring the birds and he hopes to go back once more in the summer and again in November "after the birds are back."

"The plover work represents a good vehicle for us to give field training to our biology students, especially those who want to go into fish and wildlife," said Goodwill. "We'll probably follow up on that next year and send some people to take buccal or mouth swabs in Alaska to figure out parentage, that is, if there is extra-pair mating."

"I think they've done a marvelous job this first year, and it's a great project to continue working on," Bruner said. "The real advantage is that students are involved in it, and I see that as a great opportunity for the university. This is the first time anyone's addressing shore birds in Saipan, and there's a lot of interest in this thing."

"We're looking at one of our students working with leading experts in bird genetics, and the world's leading experts with plovers," added Goodwill. "I don't know how you buy that kind of training."