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Megan Card, Published July 12 2012

NDSU study shows bird embryos able to adjust to environments

FARGO – A North Dakota State University study seems to crack the code on egg hatching.

With research that began five years earlier, Wendy Reed and Mark Clark, NDSU associate professors of biological studies, have published a study showing bird embryos in eggs are able to sense and adjust to their environments.

Using Franklin’s gulls, known as “prairie doves” because of their tendency to breed in the wet parts of prairies, NDSU faculty and students collected gull eggs early and late in the season, Reed said.

The eggs were separated, and incubated at different levels, simulating an early and a late season. After the gulls hatched, Reed said they measured the size of the chicks and the amount of yolk reserves.

Clark said when observing hatchling size, the study found that embryos exposed to a simulated early season took longer to develop than late-season hatchlings. But these chicks would, on average, be larger in size than the quicker-developing late-season counterparts.

The implication is bird embryos may not be passive to their environment, Reed said.

“If embryos can develop independently on the amount of daylight they receive and integrate the nutrients they receive from their mothers, this opens up a lot of questions about the embryo’s development mechanisms,” she said. “What specific signals are they receiving?”

With five years of research under their belt, Clark said the findings could give researchers a better grasp on how these gulls’ development can adjust to allow them to migrate more successfully.

“If birds are arriving earlier to their breeding grounds than before, research suggests the impact of eggs exposed to the early season photoperiod could create bigger chicks with more successful survival rates during migration,” Clark said.

Clark and Reed will see their work published in “Functional Ecology,” a British ecological journal.

But their work is not complete. Clark and Reed both said they plan to continue working with embryo in an egg development, which will also mean NDSU students will have more opportunities to assist with the research.

Emily Davenport-Berg, a former NDSU graduate student who worked with the study at its start, said the impact of these kinds of studies at the university is crucial for students.

“Academically, the research helped me ask questions about what contributed to the success of these chicks,” she said. “And from a personal perspective, the study opened my mind to a ton of research topics I hadn’t considered before.”

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