Scientists Giving Birds Breathalyzer Tests

Scientists Giving Birds Breathalyzer Tests

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Ed Yeates Reporting BYU scientists are "sniffing" bird breath these days, trying to collect data for a most unusual study. In fact, they've developed little tiny breathalyzers that suck in the air samples without harming the animals.

The birds are breathing into a tailor-made breathalyzer developed by BYU researchers, even small birds that weigh only grams. The device is prepped with oxygen, the cup adjusted to fit the very small beak, and the little birdie takes its breathalyzer test. While these feathered guys and gals haven't been tipping the bottle, they have been eating like all birds do - and that, Dr. Kent Hatch says, is significant.

Dr. Kent Hatch, Brigham Young University: “When you eat something, your body burns it to energy and carbon dioxide. And so we’re really interested in finding out something about what the animal ate, from its breath.”

Out in the field, the breathalyzer could be quick an easy to use, giving researchers an instant analysis of where birds have been and what they've been eating along the way.

Dr. Kent Hatch: “There has been a lot less research done on how they actually get there. Where do they stop? Where do they eat? And so we’re just beginning to understand these things.”

For example, if we're going to preserve songbirds or other eloquent flyers, researchers need to know whether human developments along the path may be interfering with their native diets. If so, could we provide alternative foods along the way that would give them what they need on those long journeys.

From each sample, researchers can tell what the bird has consumed over the past 12 hours, and with more analysis, from what locations.

Dr. Kent Hatch: “If they were making a long trip, the signature of their breath would be different than if they were just making a hop.”

And it's not just birds, the breathalyzer works equally well on lizards, even large animals like bears.

Kent Hatch and his team have already sampled birds refueling on Block Island off the southern coast of Rhode Island.

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