UNM researcher part of hummingbird special - Albuquerque Journal

UNM researcher part of hummingbird special

Hummingbirds are the tiniest of birds.

Yet each one possesses natural-born superpowers that enable them to fly backward, upside-down and seemingly float in midair.

Their wings beat faster than the eye can see.

These attributes have both intrigued scientists and made it challenging to study the species, but with the latest high-speed cameras and other technologies, a new documentary, “Super Hummingbirds” reveals new scientific breakthroughs about these magical birds.

Christopher Witt, an associate professor in the department of biology at the University of New Mexico, in the Peruvian Andes
Christopher Witt, an associate professor in the department of biology at the University of New Mexico, in the Peruvian Andes. (Andrew Wegst/THIRTEEN Productions LLC )
And Christopher Witt, an associate professor in the department of biology and curator of birds at the Museum of Southwestern Biology of the University of New Mexico, is part of a crew that studies the birds. The group travels to the Andes to conduct its studies.

“We’ve been doing this study for 10 years,” he says. “We took the film crew to a site that we have visited before, and it’s a valley near the city of Lima. There’s some beautiful forests and communities that have been isolated from the big city. It’s a super-rural area.”

“Super Hummingbirds” also chronicles a major discovery by Witt and his UNM team high in the Peruvian Andes where oxygen is 40 percent more scarce than it is at sea level. Tests were conducted on hummers living at high altitudes to determine how little oxygen they needed to fly, and the results were impressive. For example, only when the oxygen level reached 6 percent did the sparkling violetear reach her limit, which is an altitude equivalent of 43,000 feet.

Witt discovered that a protein called hemoglobin, which humans also have in our blood, has evolved in each hummingbird species to match its elevation.

He also found that these flower feeders are able to fly at such dazzling speeds due to an ability to capture extra oxygen with every breath, a true superpower.

“These animals are amazing,” Witt says. “We went to different altitudes, and the hummingbirds adapted to the thinner and thicker air.”

Emmy-winning filmmaker Ann Johnson Prum worked with the scientists on her second film, which will air at 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. Sunday on New Mexico PBS, Channel 5.

Witt will also participate in a talk at 10 a.m. Oct. 29 at The Hiland Theater, 4800 Central SE. The event is free, but reservations are required. To make a reservation, contact Rose Poston at 277-2396 or rposton@nmpbs.org.

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