Friday, April 17, 2015

Monitoring environmental change, one raptor at a time

Fig.1. The peregrine falcon’s decline in population happened after the contaminant DDT impeded the species’ ability to reproduce. (Credit: Matt, via Flickr, 2009)

Though Paola Movalli has been working in raptor research for nearly 20 years, it was in 2006, while at workshop in Europe for her EU Marie Curie fellowship, that she and others began developing the idea of EURAPMON (Research and Monitoring for and with Raptors in Europe).

The European Science Foundation research networking programme is funded by 15 research institutions and ministries across Europe. Over the years, EURAPMON, which began in 2010 and will end later this year, has proven that interdisciplinary research amongst ecologists, along with, conservationists and ecotoxicologists, in raptor research and monitoring (R&M) yields benefits to the science.

Movalli said EURAPMON focuses on  two areas of R&M involving raptors. The first focuses on raptor populations, status, trends and their ecology and conservation; and the second focuses on using raptors as indicators of change in the environment.

“Raptors are particularly valuable as sentinels of environmental change,” Movalli said. “Such sentinels are very valuable in monitoring and forecasting environmental change and can inform mitigation and adaptation to environmental change.”

One particular environmental change area researchers are focusing on is the detection of contaminants. Movalli said decades ago, scientists were able to deduce that the swift decline in the peregrine falcon population was due to reduced reproduction success from eggshell thinning. This was ultimately caused by DDE, a metabolite of the pesticide DDT, or dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane.

“In short, raptors are a window into the functioning of the environment...Like the canary in the coal mine, the peregrine falcon provided us a warning as to how chemicals in the environment can be a risk to human health.”

With more contaminants in the world these days, Movalli said raptor research is especially important.

“The monitoring of contaminants in raptors is of vital importance,” she said. “This includes both legacy contaminants, such as mercury and lead,  but also emerging contaminants, such as brominated flame retardants and anti-inflammatory drugs.”

To better understand the environmental changes happening today, Movalli, who is now a correspondent at Naturalis Biodiversity Center, and others use raptor feathers from the center’s collections to detect trends in contaminants over time. Through a process called Instrumental Neutron Activation Analysis (INAA), Movalli said she only a few small breast feathers from each specimen gets her results for a wide range of elements.

Like most research, Movalli’s work with collections can be both beneficial and challenging. With collections of raptor skin and tissue spanning Europe, there are numerous research options at their fingertips. But, Movalli said, sometimes challenges arise in the size and contents of collections, the delicacy of some of the raptor skins and the preservatives used to maintain the samples.

However, a collections-based approach is what is getting Movalli and colleagues to their common goal: tracking temporal and spatial patterns in the levels of contaminants and promoting the One Health agenda.

“Museum collections can be used for work to elucidate historical and recent-change in  habitats, and this can inform thinking on such changes in human health and well being,” Movalli said.

Further Reading
Movalli, PA. (2000, August). Heavy metal and other residues in feathers of laggar falcon Falco biarmicus jugger from six districts of Pakistan. Retrieved from

Movalli, PA. (2008, September). Organochlorine pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyl congeners in lanner Falco biarmicus feldeggli Schlegel chicks and lanner prey in Sicily, Italy. Retrieved from

Movalli, P., Duke, G., Osborn, D. (2008). Introduction to Monitoring for and with Raptors. Retrieved from


instrumental neutron activation analysis
An analytical technique which quantifies the amounts of specific chemical elements in a sample. It requires very little sample preparation, is non-destructive of the samples used, and delivers high accuracy. Numerous elements can be analyzed in a single run. Movalli and colleagues perform this method at Delft University of Technology.
One Health 
An interdisciplinary effort around the world working to promote health for people, animals, and the environment. The basis of One Health philosophy is that these categories are inextricably linked and the health of one depends on the health of the other two.

No comments :

Post a Comment