Van Gils is motivated to show students how migratory birds expose the worldwide connection of ecosystems. Photo: Anneke Hymmen

Van Gils is fascinated by the way migratory birds embody global connections. Van Gils: ‘Migratory shorebirds connect the far North with our Wadden Sea, with Africa, and ultimately with our entire planet.’ Too often research is focussed on small areas and seemingly isolated topics. Van Gils is motivated to teach students and future researchers that ecosystems are not independent systems and that migratory birds expose their worldwide connection. Van Gils: ‘The birds play an intricate role in connecting terrestrial to marine ecosystems on a global scale, and the research contributes to evidence-based conservation of coastal shorebirds in our rapidly changing world.’

Along the flyway

The ecologist emphasizes the importance of not only teaching Global Change Ecology at the University in Groningen, and at the NIOZ research facilities on Texel, but also along the flyway involving both local students and students from UG/NIOZ. He expects that new, technological breakthroughs will provide this next generation with research opportunities that we can now only dream about. ‘Satellite tags that we currently use to track birds on their migration will become even smaller and “smarter”. In addition to revealing the precise locations of the birds, they will give us clues about their behaviour’.

The tiny transmitter on the red knot’s back, is just one example of how technology creates new opportunities to track migratory birds. Photo: Jort van Gils
Evolution in action

Technology supports this research, but it can’t replace the importance of hands-on fieldwork and observation. Van Gils: ‘It is important that biologists continue to ‘get their feet wet’.' The research at the University of Groningen will focus on a better fundamental understanding of how food abundance affects individuals and populations of shorebirds on local and global scales. Van Gils: ‘Over the past 35 years, we have seen red knots gradually become smaller as a response to climate change. Nevertheless, the birds with the highest chance of survival on their West-African winter grounds are those that, despite their shrunken body, still have a relatively long beak. Here, we see evolution in action, and that is fascinating.’

Over the past 35 years, red knots have gradually become smaller. This might be due to insects emerging from the soil earlier at the rapidly warming Siberian breeding grounds; too early for the chicks to grow to full adult body size. Photo: Thomas Lameris.