Dr. Brian Walker’s research is for the birds – literally.
A standout biology professor at Fairfield University, Dr. Walker recently won his first Fulbright Fellowship to study stress physiology in the green saltator, a small, but talented singing bird whose laidback lifestyle is being affected by the rampant development and eco-tourism now prevalent in Campos dos Goytacazes, Brazil, four hours northeast of Rio de Janiero. The birds are often used in singing contests across the country – a kind of “South American Idol” for the winged set. Dr. Walker will be studying the difference between captive and wild birds and how their level of testosterone affects their song and their stress levels.
In addition, he will be studying stress in common marmosets with Dr. Carlos Miranda, a leading research on these tiny primates, at Universidade Estadual do Norte Fluminense (UENF).
“Brazil is up and coming right now, so there’s lots of development going on,” said Dr. Walker, chair of Fairfield’s biology department. “I measure changes in glucocorticoids, stress hormones, as indicators of how well animals are dealing with their environments – a rather new discipline called ‘environmental endocrinology.’ While behavioral consequences of human interference are well documented in ecological studies, less attention focuses on the internal physiological changes that animals must make in order to successfully adapt to disturbed environments.”
The two animals – green saltators and marmosets – may seem wildly different, but Dr. Walker has a long research history of studying stress in everything from harbor seals to Magellanic penguins, gauging how human disturbances affect animals at a very personal level.
The Fulbright will cover Dr. Walker’s research in the fall semester at UENF. He also received Fairfield University’s Robert E. Wall Award, which will allow him to continue his research in Brazil through part or all of the spring semester. The Wall Award is presented annually to a tenured faculty member to pursue a major research project.
Dr. Walker’s research also presents a rare opportunity for Fairfield students to study in Brazil. Five biology majors will accompany him in the fall semester and another five will help with the research in the spring. “Not as many study abroad places offer science courses, so this is a great opportunity,” he said.
Dr. Walker and his students have initiated a number of studies examining human disturbance on wildlife, mostly involving birds. They’ve studied Northern Cardinals and house sparrows in Connecticut and traveled to Nicaragua and Costa Rica to see how birds deal with human disturbances.
A native of North Dakota, Dr. Walker received his bachelor’s degree in biology from Drake University. He earned his master’s degree in biology from Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, where he studied the reproductive behavior of male harbor seals. He spent four years as a wildlife biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), working in Antarctica studying foraging and breeding patterns of Antarctic fur seals. He then returned to graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. from the University of Washington, Seattle, where he examined how human disturbances, specifically ecotourism, affected the stress response in Magellanic penguins.
Before coming to Fairfield in 2006, Dr. Walker held teaching and research positions at Arizona State University, the University of Washington, Seattle, Central Community College and Gonzaga University.
Image courtesy of Fairfield University