The Brightsmith family (Gaby, Mandy Lu, and Don) celebrate Christmas 2014 at Tambopata. (Tambopata Macaw Project)
The Schubot connection
Of course, the data they collect still requires a laboratory and experts to analyze it. That’s where Texas A&M’s Schubot Exotic Bird Health Center comes into play. Brightsmith was recruited to Texas A&M by Schubot Center Director and Distinguished Professor Dr. Ian Tizard in 2005. After some initial research collaborations with Brightsmith, Tizard visited the Tambopata Center and offered Brightsmith a job as a lecturer at the CVM.
For Brightsmith, the Schubot Center was an irresistible draw, and the relationship has paid off. “The Schubot Center provides the platform for my work,” he said. “Over the years, they have provided financial assistance and a community of scholars. Because the center exists and it’s endowed, it will always attract a group of people interested in bird research, even those who don’t know that they’re interested in bird research.”
Brightsmith credits Tizard with making the Schubot Center a vibrant hub for avian research, always bringing new scientists from different disciplines into the fold. “If he needs a microbiologist, he finds a microbiologist who knows what a bird is,” Brightsmith said. “Right now we’re working with a geneticist who works on conifer trees, but all of these people are now working on bird-related issues because the Schubot Exotic Bird Health Center exists. I am within that milieu, and it provides a community of people interested in exotic bird issues.”
Groundbreaking studies about macaws using clay licks to gather essential minerals put Tambopata on the map in the 1990s, and that research continues today. Brightsmith’s team has also published papers explaining their success using artificial nest boxes to increase breeding success. However, over time, the Tambopata project’s main focuses have shifted to new questions.
Right now, Brightsmith’s main interest is the macaws’ movements and how they change in relation to seasonal events. Researchers use lightweight collars to track the movements of individual birds. Brightsmith said he is concerned about the macaws’ most recent breeding season, which was off to a late and slow start. He speculates that the El Niño weather patterns and the resulting low food supply might have something to do with it. To sort out the irregularities and what they might mean for the future of the species, he hopes to compare data from the past several years.
“At this point, we’ll be able to reflect back and see what happens when you have this odd change in plant resources and how that impacts [macaw movements and breeding],” explained Brightsmith. “Understanding what happens in an El Niño year may give us a better view into the future of what happens as larger-scale climate change alters the plants and their fruiting and flowering.”
Similarly, a shift in movement from one clay lick to another has piqued Brightsmith’s curiosity about the future. “We don’t understand how climate change and clay lick use are rippling through the environment and changing things. We need to look more carefully at these climate-related issues—the annual variations and how they correlate with the environment—which will give us a better ability to predict global change ideas.”
Brightsmith’s wife, Gabriela Vigo Trauco, Peruvian ecologist, Tambopata project coordinator, and current Ph.D. student in Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences at Texas A&M, is “studying scarlet macaw breeding systems using a combination of ecology, animal behavior, and genetic analysis.” The Tambopata location is perfect for her research because that species is not yet endangered in the Peruvian Amazon. “There we can study things that you cannot study in areas in which the species is endangered,” Vigo Trauco explained. “So, that’s the way I want to lead my research.”
CVM students are also using Tambopata as a site for fieldwork and graduate research. Every year, Brightsmith and Dr. Sharman Hoppes, clinical associate professor at the CVM, take two to four veterinary students on a study abroad experience at the station. Students from around Texas A&M’s campus spend time in Tambopata as both volunteers and doctoral researchers.
This story originally appeared on the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences website.