Audrey LePogam: everyday is winter for snow bunting

In this post Audrey Le Pogam, a phd student from Université du Québec à Rimouski, present her research ‘Coping with the worst of both worlds: phenotypic adjustments for cold acclimatization benefit northward migration and arrival in the cold in an Arctic breeding songbird’. She discusses the importance of species adaptations to environment, her future research questions and her newly discovered passion for sumo.

Audrey Le Pogam with a snow bunting in front of the aviary at the Université du Québec à Rimouski (Québec)
Audrey Le Pogam with a snow bunting in front of the aviary at the Université du Québec à Rimouski (Québec)

About the paper

  • What’s your paper about?

My paper focuses on the physiological changes associated with cold acclimatization and migration during the winter, spring migration and arrival/summer phases of snow bunting, a migratory Arctic breeding songbird known for its high winter cold endurance. I found that during the spring phase the cold endurance of buntings did not change -despite the warming of air temperatures – it remained high at levels comparable to the winter phase. This likely allows buntings to tolerate the harsh weather experienced during their Arctic migration and arrival on breeding grounds. My study also demonstrates the surprising ability of buntings to maintain an almost winter-like level of cold endurance during the summer, even when temperatures are much higher than in winter. This suggests that buntings have evolved to maintain winter physiological capabilities during the summer months to cope with unpredictable weather events characteristic of the Arctic.

Measuring the pectoral muscle thickness of a snow bunting with an ultrasound machine.
Measuring the pectoral muscle thickness of a snow bunting with an ultrasound machine.
  • What is the background behind your paper?

We know that birds that spend winter in cold environments acclimatise by increasing their fat stores and flight muscle mass. These changes improve their cold endurance through increased shivering heat production and energy reserves. We also know that in the spring, birds preparing to migrate increase their fat stores and flight muscle size, this time to have enough fuel and muscle strength for the long migratory flights. Thus, because the physiological adjustments involved in cold acclimatization and migration preparation are similar, we wondered whether birds that winter in cold temperate areas and then migrate to high latitudes to breed might benefit from winter adaptations for migration and arrival at Arctic breeding sites.

Measuring lean and fat mass on snow bunting with a quantitative magnetic resonance (QMR) machine.
Measuring lean and fat mass on snow bunting with a quantitative magnetic resonance (QMR) machine.
  • How is your paper new or different from other work in this area?

This study is the first direct demonstration that parameters associated with winter cold acclimatisation can be maintained during migration and even during the breeding season to provide an advantage for Arctic species.

About the research

  • What is the broader impact of your paper?

Several other songbirds also overwinter in cold temperate zones and breed in Arctic regions, e.g., common redpoll (Acanthis flammea), Lapland longspur (Calcarius lapponicus), white-crowed sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii), horned lark (Eremophila alpestris). Thus, it is likely that the results obtained in this study are typical of these long-distance migrating cold specialists rather than specific to snow buntings, although this idea requires further research.

  • What would you like to do next?
Flight of snow buntings during winter at Rimouski (Québec) (Photo credit: Audrey Le Pogam)
Flight of snow buntings during winter at Rimouski (Québec) (Photo credit: Audrey Le Pogam)

This study was carried out on captive snow buntings held in an outdoor aviary on their wintering grounds to obtain the seasonal phenotypic adjustment patterns from the peak of winter to the end of summer. However, in this context, the birds did not migrate and were confronted with temperatures that gradually warmed during the summer. The next step is to investigate whether in their free-living counterparts the winter phenotype can be maintained until arrival on the breeding grounds or whether changes associated with migration can affect the winter phenotype. To do this, we will compare the phenotype of free-living birds in the coldest part of winter with the phenotype upon arrival at an Arctic breeding area, when conditions upon arrival are more difficult than in winter.

About The Author

  • What’s your current position?

I am a Ph.D. student in the avian ecophysiology laboratory of Dr. François Vézina at the Université du Québec à Rimouski. I plan to complete my thesis by the end of summer 2021.

Male snow bunting in breeding plumage (Photo credit: Audrey Le Pogam)
Male snow bunting in breeding plumage (Photo credit: Audrey Le Pogam)
  • What are you currently working on?

I study the phenotypic adjustments of snow bunting in response to the constraints of the winter environment, migration, and reproduction. My research combines studies on individuals kept in captivity in an outdoor aviary in Rimouski (48°N) and on individuals captured in the wild on their wintering grounds (Rimouski and Guelph, 43°N) as well as at the northern tip of their breeding range (Alert, 83°N).

  • What do you do in your spare time?

For me, nature is a constant source of wonder and inspiration. I take great pleasure in capturing through the lens of my camera, the life, the landscapes, the textures, the colours of this world that surrounds us and of which we are part. Recently, confined to my home to write my thesis, I discovered a passion for sumo. Since, I don’t miss a day of each tournament!

Read the article in full here.

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