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NASA astronaut stands in as ‘mother goose’ for UBC study on high-flying geese

The bar-headed goose, native to Central Asia, is one of the world’s highest-flying birds.

From spending the winter months in South Asia as far south as the southern tip of India, the bird migrates over the world’s tallest mountains peaks in the Himalayas to its summer grounds in Tibet, Kazahkstan and Russia. 

So it would make sense that a NASA astronaut would be the one to teach a group of bar-headed goslings how to fly in a wind tunnel at the University of British Columbia for a study on the effects of altitude and oxygen use.

Jessica Meir, the NASA astronaut and physiologist in question, studies how animals on earth adapt to extreme environments. 

As part of her postdoctoral research at UBC, she focused on the bar-headed goose and how it adapts to high altitude — and the corresponding low oxygen levels.

Jessica Meir holds a few of her bar-headed goslings. (Submitted by UBC)

“The goals of our project were pretty ambitious,” said Meir, 42, speaking to CBC On The Coast host Gloria Macarenko on the phone from Moscow, where she is preparing for a trip to the International Space Station. 

Because the study called for simultaneous data collection of various physiological measurements while the birds were flying, it meant the birds needed to fly in a controlled laboratory.  

“So we imprinted the birds to make sure they were really comfortable with us and … familiar with all of the equipment and … facilities that we needed them to perform in,” she said. 

The goslings were trained to make sure they were really comfortable with the research team and would be familiar with all of the equipment and all of the facilities they needed them to perform in. (Submitted by UBC)

Meir, who is Swedish-American, says she became “mother goose” for 12 goslings, training the geese to fly in the wind tunnel and alongside her scooter.

“It was really one of the most incredible things I’ve done in my life,” she said. “To just to have these animals look to you for everything, to be sad and crying when you go away from them, and have an animal so comfortable with you like that — it was really an incredible experience.”

A bar-headed goose wearing a special mask to measure the amount of oxygen consumed during the flight and a backpack recorder that measured heart rate. (Submitted by UBC)

For the experiment, the geese had to wear a special mask to measure the amount of oxygen consumed during the flight and the amount of carbon dioxide they produced. 

The geese also wore a backpack recorder that measured heart rate. For some flights, the birds also had an internal electrode that measured the flow of oxygen.

Jessica Meir watches as her birds fly in the wind tunnel at the University of British Columbia. (Submitted by UBC)

“When the [birds] are migrating over the Himalayas, we know they are dealing with a half to a third of the oxygen that we have here at sea level. So only 10.5 or 7 per cent oxygen,” Meir said. 

“What we found out is that, surprisingly, the birds were able to lower their metabolic rate when they were flying in the more challenging, lower oxygen conditions [than] when they were in the normal 21 per cent oxygen conditions [at sea level].”

This meant the birds required less oxygen in the severely oxygen-limited environment — in other words, they became more efficient when there was low oxygen.

Official portrait of NASA Astronaut Jessica Meir in a WB-57 high altitude flight suit. (Robert Markowitz/NASA)

The research from Meir’s study was published Tuesday in the eLife science journal, but she is already focused on her next major project — her first space flight.

Meir is scheduled to leave Sept. 25 for the International Space Station, with her return to Earth scheduled for spring 2020.

Similar to her work on Earth, Meir will be working on experiments related to how the human body adapts to the extreme conditions of microgravity and space flight. 

But this time she’ll be the subject.

“It’s come full circle … and I’ll be the one getting poked and prodded for the science,” she said.

As for the geese, Meir says they are “living the good life out at a pasture” on a farm in B.C.