High Flyers – More Extreme Sports

Bar Headed Goose but with feet on the ground.
Image Diliff – Creative Commons, Wikipedia

Extreme sports seem to have a growing fascination for our fellow humans. As I’m getting in training for an event of extreme couch potatoing starting next month with my Olympic program pinned up on the wall, I have a limited interest in high flyers at low oxygen levels. But, of course, it takes all sorts of interests to make good news reading.

The latest on extreme sports is Victoria Gill's piece for BBC Nature reporting on Meir’s work at UBC on the bar headed geese who are natural high flyers (1). It’s not surprising as the live up on the Tibetan Plateau so it’s just a hop, skip and a flip to Everest.

The question of the moment in this Olympic year, is how high can these high flyers fly? No experimental biologist is going to be stumped with that one, especially as UBC’s engineering department has a wind tunnel and if you toss a goose in a wind tunnel it must do what a goose has to do and spread its wings and fly.

The problem then becomes how little oxygen can it cope with and still fly? Those chest muscles, which make delicious eating when roasted, require a lot of oxygen to keep those wings functioning. The answer was to hatch out goslings and train them to wear facemasks that could be connected up to an oxygen line.

They regularly migrate through the Himalayas and hit heights of up to 20,000 feet where the oxygen level in the atmosphere is about 50% of the sea level value and these high flyers managed to cope with 33% of sea-level oxygen levels which would mean that they could fly over the top of Everest should they wish.

So those breast muscles with an extreme oxygen demand are still working fine, we would like to know how they manage it. An unanswered question with the wind tunnel though is what about the low air temperatures?  The video appeared to be at normal temperatures (1). Maybe this question is on the next grant proposal.


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