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John Myles '24 holds a Pomarine Jaeger.
John Myles ’24 has now spent two summers in Utqiagvik, Alaska, a small city in northern Alaska with a dense and unique shorebird population. As part of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service research team, he searched for shorebird nests, monitored chick hatches, and tagged adult birds. The data he collected went into a 19-year-old database that seeks to track the breeding ecology of these birds and identify threats that exist throughout their annual cycle.

But in conducting this study, Myles suspects that the researchers may have led threats to the birds’ homes.

Last year, Myles and other researchers observed an increased concentration of predators near the shorebird study plot. In particular, they noted the Pomarine Jaeger. These predatory birds, known for stealing eggs and chicks, were seen nesting around the study plot and hunting within it. A general hypothesis began to form among the researchers: the jaegers and other predators had learned to follow humans to the shorebird nests.

“It was hard watching all these nests that I was monitoring get attacked by jaegers almost immediately after I found them,” Myles said. “I became intrigued by the way that the jaegers seem to cue into human behavior on the study plot.

Biology at Hamilton

At all levels, biology at Hamilton aims to offer a stimulating, thought-provoking experience, and classes are small. The emphasis on lab work and research gives students ample opportunities to apply what they learn outside the classroom.

Inspired by his experience last year, Myles returned to Utqiagvik this summer with a new mission. In addition to participating in the shorebird ecology research, he conducted his own Levitt Center-funded project titled “Predator-prey relationships and the influence of humans on shorebird nest survival.” The project, developed with the help of his advisor and Associate Professor of Biology Andrea Townsend, sought to determine if predators are indeed hunting disproportionately on the study plot and in relation to human activity. 

Results from this research could affect how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service interprets past and future data on the shorebird populations. By determining the role humans play in local predator-prey relationships, researchers can more accurately assess the quality of the datasets and better estimate Arctic shorebird population trends. This information could eventually inform legislation and species protection, Myles said.

“That’s particularly valuable because the Arctic is such a vulnerable ecosystem at the moment due to climate change,” he said. “If we’re tracking these species over time, we want to make sure that we can show any effects of climate change accurately without our human presence artificially altering the data.”

To conduct the research, Myles got his hands “bloodied and battered” as he attached GPS tags to the jaegers. He then used the trackers to determine how the jaegers moved in relation to human researchers who carry similar GPS monitors.

Arctic fox pup
An Arctic fox pup.

In addition to tagging jaegers, Myles also tagged arctic foxes and dunlins for observation. The arctic foxes, like the jaegers, preyed on shorebirds, but whereas jaegers likely followed humans to the nests by sight, the foxes likely followed a human scent trail. Dunlins, a common shorebird within the study plot, occupied many of these nests. The data Myles collects from the dunlins will play a key role in understanding the predator-prey relationships.

 

 

“Ive been interested in studying birds my entire life,” Myles said. “Having spent so much time these past summers watching arctic shorebirds on the ground and seeing how they behave, I’ve developed a really great appreciation for them in particular.”

Myles has left Alaska and is now working to compile the data. He hopes to publish his findings in a research paper and continue studying birds in the future.

John Myles ’24

Majors: Biology and French
Hometown: Berkeley, Calif.
High School: Head-Royce School

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