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From Indiana to the Andes, IU protects the planet through biodiversity research, advocacy

Mar 6, 2024

A flamingo feeds its baby in a lake high in the Andes Mountains. Alex Jahn, assistant research scientist at Indiana University and co-dir... A flamingo feeds its baby in a lake high in the Andes Mountains. Alex Jahn, assistant research scientist at Indiana University and co-director of the Midwest Center for Biodiversity, is partnering with researchers in Argentina to protect the flamingos from habitat loss due to lithium mining in the region. Photo by Ossian Lindholm

A loss in the diversity of wildlife is one of the greatest threats to the planet today, and researchers at Indiana University’s Midwest Center for Biodiversity are working to protect the planet’s ecosystems through impactful, groundbreaking research. Their research is making a difference in Indiana and beyond, even reaching the peaks of the Andes Mountains, where a boom in lithium mining has left one of the rarest and most charismatic migratory birds, the Andean flamingo, at risk.

Setting the scene

Indiana University established the Midwest Center for Biodiversity in 2023 to address the drastic decline in biodiversity in the Midwest and beyond. At the center, researchers, educators and community members collaborate to determine the causes for biodiversity loss, recommend solutions in conservation practice and policy, and communicate the need for an urgent response.

“There are more threats to biodiversity than just the climate — a huge one being habitat loss,” said Distinguished Professor of Biology Ellen Ketterson, co-director of the Midwest Center for Biodiversity. “So much of the area formerly occupied by wildlife has been transformed.”

Alex Jahn, left, co-director of IU's Midwest Center for Biodiversity, and IU junior Katherine Johnson look for American robins ... Alex Jahn, left, co-director of IU's Midwest Center for Biodiversity, and IU junior Katherine Johnson look for American robins on the Bloomington campus during a hands-on research lesson in tracking migration and testing the health of local birds. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

Urban sprawl, deforestation and the dismantling of protection for wetlands exacerbate loss of biodiversity. Roughly half of the Earth’s habitable land, including forests, wetlands and grasslands, has been converted for agricultural use to feed a growing human population, resulting in significant habitat loss. Since 1970, the human population has risen from 3.6 billion to more than 8 billion, while wildlife populations have experienced a loss of nearly 70%, according to the 2022 Living Planet Report.

Researchers at the Midwest Center for Biodiversity say the leading indicator of an ecosystem’s health is its biodiversity, so actions to curb losses are necessary to sustain life on Earth. A key component of the center’s research lies in the study of migratory birds, which are among the species experiencing the steepest decline. North America has lost more than a quarter of its bird population in the past 50 years, according to a 2019 study.

Making an impact in the Midwest

Current research projects at the center include the impacts of artificial light at night on bird breeding and migration; the effects of window strikes on bird populations; and species vulnerability and resilience, which is studied by banding and tracking robins on the Bloomington campus. The center engages with the community through summer camps and bird-banding lessons at Kent Farm, an IU research and teaching preserve.

Alex Jahn inspects a male American robin captured during an early-morning research lesson with students. Photo by James Brosher... Alex Jahn inspects a male American robin captured during an early-morning research lesson with students. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

The Bloomington campus provides a “natural laboratory” for hands-on training in the field of research techniques, according to Alex Jahn, assistant research scientist in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Biology and co-director of the Midwest Center for Biodiversity.

“This campus is just ideal for that kind of research,” Jahn said. “Not all universities are blessed with this kind of campus where there’s so much wildlife. It is not only made up of infrastructure such as roads and buildings, it also encompasses a broad array of green areas, from forest to wetlands. These habitats are home to numerous wildlife, including dozens of bird species.”

Each spring, Jahn takes students just a stone’s throw from the classroom to participate in hands-on research. Students learn how to catch robins and attach a miniature, GPS-enabled transmitter “backpack.” They also place a small metal band on the bird’s leg to identify it with a unique number before releasing it safely back into the wild.

Alex Jahn releases an American robin after collecting data and blood samples during a research exercise with students. Photo by... Alex Jahn releases an American robin after collecting data and blood samples during a research exercise with students. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

“We typically band over 100 robins every spring on campus in this way, and in the process train undergraduate and graduate students in how to capture, safely handle and measure birds,” Jahn said.

Students learn how to test birds for communicable diseases like West Nile virus and Lyme disease as well. Their research has led to several discoveries, including that most of the robins they track migrate to the southeastern U.S., between Florida and Texas, and they can journey back to Bloomington in just a few days.

Explore a photo essay of the American robins study on the IU Experience website

Birds know no borders

In the heart of the Andes Mountains lies “The Lithium Triangle,” an area including regions of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina that holds more than half of the world’s lithium resources. The area has experienced a mining boom as demand for lithium-ion batteries continues to rise with the use of battery-powered devices and electric vehicles.

The mining boom has affected one of the rarest water birds in the world: the Andean flamingo. Andean, Puna and Chilean flamingos breed in lakes found high in the Andes, where elevations reach between 11,000 to 14,500 feet. These lakes also happen to be where lithium is mined.

A colony of flamingos is seen in a lake high in the Andes mountains of Argentina, where Alex Jahn partners with researchers to study Ande... A colony of flamingos is seen in a lake high in the Andes mountains of Argentina, where Alex Jahn partners with researchers to study Andean flamingos and advocate for their protection. Photo by Enrique Derlindati, National University of Salta

Jahn formed an international partnership with researchers in Argentina to study Andean flamingos and advocate for protections. Jahn said little is known about flamingos in South America, which is why research is needed to develop effective, science-based conservation plans for their protection.

“It’s really amazing that flamingos are the charismatic mega-fauna of the bird world, and we know very little about their ecology and behavior in the wild,” Jahn said. “For example, we still don’t know which wetlands individual flamingos use at different times of the year.”

Similar to how Jahn and his students track robins on the Bloomington campus, the research team in the Andes outfits flamingos with tiny backpacks that can track their migration using global satellite imagery. The technology allows them to record climate and habitat data during the birds’ travels. Jahn said they have already made important discoveries.

It's really amazing that flamingos are the charismatic mega-fauna of the bird world, and we know very little about their e... “It's really amazing that flamingos are the charismatic mega-fauna of the bird world, and we know very little about their ecology and behavior in the wild,” Alex Jahn said. Photo by Enrique Derlindati

“Flamingos move incredibly rapidly and over longer distances than we anticipated, moving several hundred miles in just a few days,” Jahn said. “They’re moving in between different regions much more rapidly than we thought. One flamingo actually visited Chile, Bolivia and Argentina — all three countries — within about a three-month timespan.

“Birds know no borders; those are just lines on a map that they cross seamlessly.”

The discovery was important because while North American countries share data with one another on migratory birds, there is a need for international conservation efforts for migratory birds in South America.

“In North America, the Migratory Bird Treaty between Mexico, the U.S. and Canada is designed to protect millions of birds that migrate between those three countries every year,” Jahn said. “No such thing exists in South America yet, so our work, hopefully, will contribute to the creation of something like that in the future.”

Research in action

Andean flamingos are listed as “facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild in the near future” by the Convention of Migratory Species. But to advocate for their protection, more data is needed on their ecology and which lakes they rely on the most. The data that Jahn and his colleagues in Argentina are collecting shows that the roughly 80,000 Andean flamingos that remain are at risk if mining operations encroach on their habitat.

A lithium mine supervisor inspects an evaporation pond of lithium-rich brine in the Atacama Desert in Salar de Atacama, Chile. The &#... A lithium mine supervisor inspects an evaporation pond of lithium-rich brine in the Atacama Desert in Salar de Atacama, Chile. The “Lithium Triangle” includes regions of Argentina, Chile and Bolivia, and IU research scientist Alex Jahn is partnering with researchers in Argentina to protect flamingos that depend on these lakes. Photo by John Moore, Getty Images

“Mining activities modify the habitat variables and impact flamingo colonies negatively, and human presence interferes with their breeding cycle,” said Enrique Derlindati, a professor of biological sciences at the National University of Salta in Argentina. “Our partnership with Jahn allowed us to demonstrate that some colonies were abandoned, and even more sites were no longer used by flamingos.”

The team has shared the research it’s collected with an agency that certifies mining operations as sustainable, encouraging the agency to consider flamingos when developing its environmental impact statements. While Andean flamingos are listed as being at high risk for extinction, they are often excluded from these environmental impact statements because of the lack of ecological research on which lakes they use.

Two Andean flamingos and a Puna flamingo interact in a lake in the mountains of Catamarca, Argentina. The birds are at risk as lithium mi... Two Andean flamingos and a Puna flamingo interact in a lake in the mountains of Catamarca, Argentina. The birds are at risk as lithium mining in the region increases to meet consumer demands for battery-powered devices and vehicles. Photo by Moment RF, Getty Images

“Providing the information necessary to develop effective conservation plans to protect flamingos is a central goal of our research,” Jahn said. “Hopefully, in the future, a mining company that provides lithium to automakers like Audi or Tesla will need to show that the lithium was sustainably sourced. It will ultimately be the customer and the voting public who drive that change.”

Now that they can provide concrete data showing the flamingos’ habitat use throughout the year, the team is working with the certification agency to include Andean flamingos in their environmental assessments.

A delicate balance

The impact of the work that Jahn and his colleagues in Argentina are conducting will affect other species as well. Derlindati explained what is at stake for Andean flamingos and the species that depend on them within their ecosystem.

“High Andean flamingo conservation is important because they are unique, key species in their environment,” Derlindati said. “Flamingos move a large amount of nutrients between and within habitats. Reductions in their abundance and presence could have a critical impact on environmental functions.”

Derlindati said that invertebrates and microscopic biological communities depend on the nutrients flamingos bring with them as they migrate to the mountains to nest each summer. In turn, the flamingos depend on lake algae and diatoms for food. While on their migration journeys, they fly over deserts in search of the lakes where they find this food, which are few and far between.

Flamingos move incredibly rapidly and over longer distances than we anticipated, moving several hundred miles in just a few da... “Flamingos move incredibly rapidly and over longer distances than we anticipated, moving several hundred miles in just a few days,” Alex Jahn said. “One flamingo actually visited Chile, Bolivia and Argentina — all three countries — within about a three-month timespan.” Photo courtesy of Getty Images

If a lake where they nested during previous summers is unexpectedly occupied by a lithium mine on their next arrival, that population of flamingos is suddenly without a place to rest and fuel up for further migration. The invertebrates and microscopic species that depend on the flamingos’ arrival each summer are also at risk, which could lead to the ecosystem’s breakdown.

With the new data in hand, Derlindati said he is working with local governments, pushing for public policies that will protect the region’s ecological biodiversity.

“The help of Alex and Indiana University allowed me to answer questions that I could hardly have solved alone,” Derlindati said. “This is particularly true with respect to technology access, but especially the value of feedback with a biologist like Alex. Without these elements, it would have been very difficult to develop a project of these characteristics.”

Jahn, Derlindati and the team are also working with local communities and schools in the Andes region to promote environmental education and the protection of water supplies that both wildlife and humans depend on. The next phase includes looking for funding to continue their work and make more discoveries that can drive change.

The researchers at the Midwest Center for Biodiversity are confident that their work both in Bloomington and beyond will make a positive difference in sustaining the planet’s biodiversity well into the future.

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