Biologists think a lot about adaptation to the environment. In the struggle of life, animals and plants that evolve ways to cope with the stresses of their environment survive to reproduce, and send a new generation like them into the future to carry on their genetic lineage. The success or failure of this long journey through time is what separates the species we see from those that have gone extinct. As we walk around the tundra, studying creatures exquisitely adapted to this harsh arctic environment, I’ve been thinking a lot about the contrast between how well they are adapted, and how poorly we are, to this climate and landscape.
It starts with the trip here. Semipalmated Sandpipers fly from the northern coast of South America, making strategic refueling stops at critical wetlands along their migration route. Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences works with governments and partner organizations across the hemisphere to help protect these sites through the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. The birds bring no baggage on their journey, just their tiny bodies which weigh about as much as two AA batteries, and even with stopovers to feed they make the journey in a few weeks. In contrast, we start planning months in advance. Three airline flights and a long bush plane ride bring us to this uninhabited arctic island carrying two thousand pounds of gear and supplies we need to survive here. In a week we would stagger only a few miles by foot shuttling all that baggage.
Shorebirds keep warm in the cold arctic wind 24/7 with only their feathers, marvels of adaptation that provide them the freedom of flight and also give them the gift of warmth. We huddle in our goose down jackets by day and sleeping bags at night, using their cousins’ own adaptation to our advantage by keeping warm with their downy feathers. They stay active much of the long artic night, bathed in soft light from a sun that barely dips below the horizon here on Coats Island, while we sleep deeply trying to recover from each long day of work walking across tundra and marshes.
Arriving without food, the birds have only a little stored energy in the form of fat reserves that fueled their long migration and that is nearly depleted when they arrive. But they arrive at an exquisitely timed moment, just as the snow is melting and exposing pools of water on the landscape that hatch tiny invertebrates on which the birds feed, and grasses with a seemingly infinite supply of black spiders. We bring all of our food with us, carefully planned in advance and packaged to make cooking efficient with our small supply of fuel. While native people have subsisted in the arctic for thousands of years, we have few skills to survive here. If we had to feed ourselves by hunting it would take all our effort and leave us no time for the research we came to do. So we bring absolutely everything with us, while the birds come with nothing and thrive.
During the mating period shorebirds call vigorously to stake out their territories, flying high so their calls carry farther, swooping down to walk gracefully atop muddy edges of pools to feed before taking up their aerial dance once again. We slowly plod along, stumbling over the uneven terrain and becoming mired in frost boils where ice in the ground has pushed up finely worked glacial sediments to create a sucking minefield of nearly impassable obstacles. At the end of the day, we rub our blistered sore feet, and retreat to recover for another day.
In about a week the bush plane will return to ferry us back to civilization and we will begin the long process of sorting and analyzing our data, learning as much as we can from our short window onto the arctic life of shorebirds. The plane will use advanced electronic instruments to navigate back to the airport in Iqaluit. The birds will hatch their young here on the tundra, teach them how to feed themselves, and then head out on their own return trip. On the southward leg the adults depart first; the young birds will set out later on their own, flying by instinct to a place they have never been, over terrain they have never seen. Many will survive neither the long trip nor the return journey. But some will, and they will carry on the dance of migration that is their genetic heritage, raising their own offspring in one of the harshest environments on earth. We marvel at their adaptation to the arctic and to the rigors of long distance migration, and feel even more dedicated to our work helping to ensure that these birds will be able to continue their long journey through time.