Associate Professor of Integrative Biology Michael Wunder and students from his lab are tracking the migration patterns of organisms all over North America by comparing chemical signatures in isotopes of everyday elements like carbon, oxygen and hydrogen in migratory birds and animals. Living creatures store chemical signatures in tissue that create a record of where they have been and what they have been up to, and those who know how to read these signals can snoop into an individual's past and predict future behaviors.
Wunder and his team collect and analyze samples of metabolically inert tissues made by animals (such as hair, nails, whiskers, feathers and scales) and use this data to reconstruct patterns of geography using complex models. Combining mathematical modeling, physical chemistry and variability patterns in biogeochemistry, Wunder is crossing boundaries of science and heading into territories far from the traditional homeland of a population ecologist. He sees his methods and research as potentially applicable to a whole host of future industries that are hardly imagined today -- and in a world of shifting climates Wunder sees great potential in studying migratory animals as a way to model global patterns of movement for human populations, as well as cargo and transportation development. He believes nature and the patterns of migrating animals will lead the way, and says, "There are lessons that can be learned from looking at a system that's been around far longer than anything we've invented. I'm excited to keep discovering new ways we can use these findings in the future." Read more about Wunder's research.