Selu Conservancy Supports High-Tech Research

Long before arriving at Radford University in 2009, Jason Davis dreamed of working with university students and faculty in a research aviary that could push the limits of technology and discovery. When he first saw RU’s Selu Conservancy, the ecophysiologist and assistant biology professor knew his dream would come true.

“This area is incredible,” Davis said of the conservancy, comprising 380 acres of forest, grassland and river bank. “The range of natural habitats at Selu is amazing.” The site offered just what he needed to pursue his passion: the study of environmental stressors on wild birds. With Selu Conservancy Director Jeff Armistead and Andrew Ray, assistant professor of information technology, Davis created a futuristic, one-of-a-kind aviary. The 12-foot by 40-foot space has video surveillance and robotic feeding systems connected to computers so researchers can collect data on the birds’ behavior.

Transmitters the size of rice grains are implanted under the birds’ skin, sending signals that tell researchers exactly what, when and how much the birds eat, allowing them to explore how diet variations and hormone treatments affect them. This system allows researchers to house birds together, even if they are part of different research projects. The aviary can be used as one large space or partitioned into four sections, depending on the research project, and can house as many as 200 birds. About 25 house sparrows have been placed in the aviary since December 2010, and another 25 will be added by summer.

Jason Davis

Thanks to information technology and teamwork, ecophysiologist Jason Davis can conduct his research in a state-of-the-art aviary.

“This robotic system is unique,” Davis said, different from anything he has seen at a research aviary. “We can change and control feeding and treatment, even monitor the birds remotely. The system also keeps track of how much treated food a bird eats throughout the day and when it should be fed.” The aviary’s study of birds has broader implications for research on environmental change and biological processes in other species, Davis said. For instance, learning how sparrows deal with stressors may lead to breakthroughs in treating stress-related illnesses in humans.

Davis and Armistead designed and built the aviary behind the Barn, the multipurpose meeting and research center at Selu. The building’s deck extended over a concrete pad that was being used to store lawn mowers and other groundskeeping equipment. With help from RU facilities management employees, Davis and Armistead moved the machinery and, using agricultural grade plastic mesh, lumber and high-density polyethylene, enclosed the space. The floor of the deck became the ceiling of the aviary. The lumber is treated to prevent microbial growth, and the concrete floor is easy to clean and disinfect. The birds have perches, houses, even heated water bowls. The area is adjacent to an existing research and teaching laboratory fully equipped with a surgical suite and wireless Internet connectivity, giving researchers easy access to both aviary and lab space.

Ray and RU IT students created the website from which student and faculty researchers watch the birds and collect data, and Ray worked with Davis to design the robotic feeding system. “This was definitely a team effort,” Davis said. “We could not have built this facility without the collaboration from the facilities management crew, Jeff Armistead and the information technology faculty and students.”

Some funding for the sparrow research came from a $28,000 Research Opportunities Award grant from the National Science Foundation to Davis and Ignacio Moore, associate professor of biology at Virginia Tech. Their project focuses on how increased levels of testosterone in male birds affect their health, fertility and behavior toward other birds, male and female. Their research is being done at Selu and at Moore’s lab at Virginia Tech.

Selu aviary lab

Video surveillance and robotic feeding systems have been installed at the Selu aviary.

Davis said the Selu aviary is quite unlike those at other institutions. Aviaries at research universities are typically in livestock barns or storage sheds, and birds are often kept in small cages on shelves. By contrast, Selu’s birds experience natural light and changing climate conditions such as temperature and pollutant levels. Rather than being frequently handled by people, they are observed from a distance, giving researchers a clearer picture of natural biological and ecological processes. In the wild, house sparrows would deal with stressors such as changing food supplies, weather extremes and predators, affecting their health and behavior. In the aviary, by adding stress hormones to the birds’ food, researchers can study the physiological effects of various stressors.

This academic year Davis is working with more than a half dozen students conducting experiments with birds and other research subjects such as insects. “Our students design their own projects and conduct their own experiments,” he said. “They get experience doing research that they wouldn’t get as an undergraduate student at a large research university. In a sense, they are doing graduate-level work as an undergraduate student.”

Entrance to the SELU aviary

Entrance to the SELU aviary.

“This lab is very student-centered,” Davis said. “Without students, there is no way we could be as productive as we are. We have a lab meeting once a week. We have a number of new projects under development. Students observe other students as they conduct experiments, so they learn by doing and also learn from each other.”

Melissa Jayne, a 2010 RU biology graduate, will do research at the aviary this summer as part of her master’s degree in education. Her project involves hormone manipulation and immune responses in house sparrows. “My previous research has focused on the influence of environmental factors, specifically microbes and mites found in nests, on the stress of the nestlings,” or baby birds, Jayne said. “The aviary will give me the opportunity to control the nesting environment to determine if these nestlings gain an immunological advantage when they are exposed to a ‘dirtier’ nest rather than a ‘clean,’ microbe- and mite-free nesting environment.”

“This facility is wonderful,” said Jayne, who aims eventually to complete a Ph.D. in biological research and become a professor of biology. “The aviary not only allows us to house many birds, but it also allows us to house them in natural conditions.”

“The research experience I have gained through my work at the aviary has provided me with an opportunity to be an active member of the scientific community,” Jayne said. “In January, Dr. Davis and I traveled to Salt Lake City, Utah, for the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology conference to present our research. At this meeting, I was able to network with other individuals with similar interests, and I was even recruited by a professor at another university who was interested in my research.”

birdhouse at the aviary

One of Davis’s researchers this year is a budding scientist still in high school. Felicia Hall, a Christiansburg High School senior and participant in the 2010 Southwestern Virginia Governor’s School (SWVGS), is conducting research on food preferences of house sparrows and how environmental factors affect food choice.

“RU Physics Professor Dr. Rhett Herman gave a talk at SWVGS about his sea ice research project in Alaska and how he has had high school students participate in the research,” Hall said. “After his talk, I asked him if he knew of anyone doing any immunology research at RU who would like to have a high school student researcher. He e-mailed my information and what I wanted to do, and Dr. Davis contacted me.”

“This has been a great experience because it has given me the opportunity to work with a professor and with college students who are as interested in research as I am,” Hall said. “All of the other students who are doing research with Dr. Davis are amazing, and it’s such an opportunity to be able to work with them. I have learned so much. No matter what field I end up in, I will definitely continue with research.”