A bar-headed goose learns to fly by following scientist Jessica Meir as she rides a motor scooter. (Milsom Lab/UBC)

Ben Guarino

Reporter covering the practice and culture of science

Before Jessica Meir became a NASA astronaut who will blast into space from Russia this month, she made a career of studying animals that live at extremes. She followed elephant seals and emperor penguins as they swam through frigid waters. She raised a dozen bar-headed geese, capable of flying three miles high, from the moment they hatched out of their eggs. They treated her as their mother.

Few creatures dare to fly over the tallest mountains on Earth. Bar-headed geese are an exception. Above the Himalayas, where the atmosphere is so thin that helicopters struggle to fly and human exertion is nearly impossible, the birds beat their wings as they migrate from India to Mongolia.

Meir led the geese — they followed her anywhere — into a wind tunnel designed to test submarines and sports equipment. A year later, Julia York, then a student at the University of British Columbia, helped another group of geese fly in the machine. When scientists lowered the oxygen the geese breathed, the animals chilled their blood and slowed their metabolism, Meir, York and their colleagues reported in a study published Tuesday in the journal eLife.

The geese “would be absolutely fine” in conditions that would “probably kill us and many other animals,” said Graham Scott, an expert in low-oxygen biology at McMaster University in Ontario who did not participate in this study.

Bar-headed geese and their “extraordinary migration” have attracted decades of scientific interest, said Douglas L. Altshuler, who studies flight behavior at the University of British Columbia. (Altshuler has worked closely with the study authors but was not a member of the research team behind the new paper.) In an earlier study, scientists trained geese to run on treadmills.

To get birds to fly in a wind tunnel, the study authors took advantage of the avian behavior known as imprinting. Zoologist Konrad Lorenz, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1973, discovered that freshly hatched birds will bond with the first large shape they see. But few researchers use imprinting as a scientific technique, because raising birds requires so much time. Study author William K. Milsom, a University of British Columbia expert in the respiratory systems of animals, knew of only one other research group, based in Britain, where bar-headed geese had imprinted on researchers. Before this work, no biologists had flown the geese in wind tunnels while reducing their oxygen.

Two sets of geese imprinted on the scientists, one group on Meir in 2010 and another gaggle on York in 2011. Meir met her goslings in summer 2010, as they cracked out of their eggs at the Sylvan Heights Bird Park in Scotland Neck, N.C.

The scientist was the first thing the animals saw. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced in my life,” Meir said. “I say this jokingly, but there’s a little bit of truth to it, too: I was a woman in my mid-30s when I was imprinting these geese … so there’s a lot going on, with the imprinting of my 12 baby goslings.”

Meir spent almost all of her waking hours with the goslings at

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