One of the most remarkable adaptations in animals is the ability to fly. Birds, bats and insects are among the most successful of terrestrial organisms, and their colonization of diverse habitats and ecological roles provides a rich context for studies of animal behaviour and ecology. The study of how animals fly is an intrinsically multidisciplinary field that involves aspects of aerodynamics, physiology, and neuroscience. Although most flight research concerns either mechanisms or ecological interactions, flight behaviour provides a powerful yet experimentally tractable system with which to merge reductionist and comparative approaches to understand how complex locomotion is accomplished, and how variation in locomotor performance influences higher-order behaviours. We aim to integrate approaches ranging from laboratory experiments to evolutionary comparisons because understanding the mechanisms of flight control also requires understanding the historical forces that have shaped it. Conversely, to evaluate the mechanisms by which ecological changes result in biological adaptations requires a well-described system that can be studied in different environments.
Altshuler Lab News
12 January 2023New collaborative paper in Science: Our colleagues Ekaterina Osipova and Michael Hiller led a team in the discovery that FBP2, a glyconeogenic muscle enzyme, was lost as hovering flight evolved in the hummingbird lineage. Knockouts of this gene in avian cell lines led to an increase in glycolysis, mitochondria production, and mitochondrial respiration, all leading to higher energy efficiency.
1 July 2022Congratulations to Christina Harvey who started as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at UC Davis.
20 June 2022New paper in Current Biology. We found that the pretectal optic flow neurons of hummingbirds and zebra finches have distinct and specialized tuning properties.
04 April 2022Congratulations to Jasmin Wong on the successful defence of her PhD research! Jasmin has started a postdoctoral fellowship with Shane Windsor at the University of Bristol.
01 April 2022Congratulations to Francesca Ciocca who was awarded an NSERC Canada Graduate Scholarship - Masters, and to Eric Press who was awarded a British Columbia Graduate Scholarship.
24 March 2022New paper in Nature. In collaboration with Christina Harvey and Dan Inman from the AIMS lab at the University of Michigan, we found evidence that evolutionary pressures maintain birds’ capacity to shift between stable and unstable flight. There is an excellent New & Views article by Aimy Wissa.
10 March 2022Jasmin Wong discusses her PhD research in the Beaty Biodiversity Museum series Researchers Revealed.
4 January 2022New paper in the Journal of Neurophysiology: We measured the responses of optic flow neurons in the nBOR of hummingbirds and zebra finches. The direction preferences of nBOR neurons is similar to other species, but these neurons are more sharply tuned in the spatiotemporal domain, especially for hummingbirds.
3 November 2021A new collaborative paper with the MAESTRO lab was published today in Journal of the Royal Society Interface. We found that Shape Memory Alloys (SMAs) can take on diverse roles in motion control, similar to the flexible tuning of muscle elements.
9 August 2021Congratulations to Sarina Azargoon for her successful MSc defence! Sarina investigated the retina to cerebellum pathways in hummingbirds and zebra finches.
20 May 2021Jolan Theriault received the 2021 Raja Rosenbluth Award for Women in Biological Sciences. Congratulations Jo!
18 December 2020Congratulations to Shelly Wu for a succesful MSc defence. Shelly investigated the neural connections between midbrain optic flow nuclei, the inferior olive, and the vestibulocerebellum of zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata).
25 November 2020Congratulations to Roz Dakin, former postdoc in the lab! Roz has received the 2021 Bartholomew Award from the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. Carleton University has a nice write-up about the award here.
16 November 2020New paper in the Journal of Experimental Biology: We developed an in situ work loop approach for measuring muscle power from the zebra finch pectoralis major. Our experiments demonstrated that increasing flapping velocity via strain amplitude, rather than via wingbeat frequency, consistently increases net power. The research was written up for Inside JEB.
30 October 2020New commentary paper in the Journal of Experimental Biology: An analytical approach for voluntary behavior in hummingbirds suggests four broad hypotheses for the biomechanics of manuevering flight.
22 June 2020Congratulations to Shree Senthivasan for another successful MSc defence! Shree worked on developing an interital sensor network for high-throughput analysis of wing motion.
15 June 2020Congratulations to Leo Wood! He successfully defended his MSc research on the avian propatagium. Leo is heading next to Atlanta and the Georgia Tech Quantitative Biosciences program for his PhD.
8 June 2020New synthesis paper in Current Biology. This collaborative review focuses on animal pursuit and evasion: behaviours that provide natural experiments for testing algorithms linking sensory input to motor output.
24 February 2020Vikram Baliga discusses his postdoctoral research in the Beaty Biodiversity Museum series Researchers Revealed.
3 February 2020Doug Altshuler and Doug Wylie wrote a "Quick Guide" on hummingbird vision for this month's front matter in Current Biology.
23 October 2019New paper in Science Advances: Working with the Beaty Museum, we showed that avian wing morphing, rather than wing shape, explains variation in body size and flight style.
3 September 2019New paper in Journal of Comparative Neurology: We used tract tracing to demonstrate differences in connectivity between midbrain optic flow areas and the occulomotor cerebellum of hummingbirds, zebra finches, and pigeons. These results provide further evidence that optic flow circuits differ among bird species with distinct modes of flight.
8 August 2019New paper in Physiological and Biochemical Zoology: We performed two behavioral experiments and one anatomical procedure to measure temporal and spatial visual resolution in hummingbirds.
15 April 2019New paper in the Journal of Experimental Biology: We demonstrated that natural variation in the wingbeat frequency and activation of the pigeon humerotriceps provides functional plasticity that can effectively power different flight behaviours. The research was written up for Inside JEB and was also featured on the journal cover.
29 March 2019Congratulations to Eric Press, who was awarded an NSERC Postgraduate Scholarship-Doctoral.
2 January 2019New paper in Journal of the Royal Society Interface: We used a combination of behavioral observations, functional anatomy, and wind tunnel tests to demonstrate that gulls are able to modulate their static stability characteristics by morphing their wings, which may be sufficient to passively stabilize a gliding bird.
25 June 2018Congratulations to Graham Smyth, who successfully defended his MSc research on spatiotemporal tuning of optic flow neurons in hummingbirds and zebra finches.
20 April 2018Former postdoc Roz Dakin has accepted a faculty position in the Department of Biology at Carleton University. She will start her lab there in July 2019. Congratulations Roz!
9 April 2018In a new synthesis paper, we review data from pigeons, zebra finches, and hummingbirds to argue for two distinct optic flow pathways used in flight control. This collaborative paper is the final article in the special topic on avian visual guidance in Frontiers in Neuroscience.
29 March 2018Congratulations to Jolan Theriault for award of an NSERC graduate fellowship to support her PhD studies.
16 March 2018New paper: Doug and Srini Srinivasan wrote a review article on the visual guidance of bird flight, which is part of the special topic they edited together with Doug Wylie for Frontiers in Neuroscience.
14 March 2018Congratulations to Christina Harvey! She successfully defended her MSc research on wing morphing in gulls today. Christina will next go to Dan Inman's lab in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Michigan for her PhD.
8 February 2018New paper in Science: We used a multi-camera tracking system to record the maneuvering behaviour of over 200 hummingbirds from 25 species. We found species differences in maneuverability that are determined by evolved changes in muscle capacity and wing morphology as well as skill.
29 January 2018A new collaborative paper with the Fernández-Juricic lab was published today in Frontiers in Neuroscience. We characterized the hummingbird visual field configuration and the orientation of the centers of acute vision.
16 January 2018A new collaborative paper with the Wylie lab has been published online today in the Journal of Comparative Physiology A. We used track tracing to establish retinal inputs to the nucleus lentiformis mesencephali in zebra finches and hummingbirds.
28 November 2017Congratulations to Dimitri Skandalis! He defended his PhD on hummingbird morphology and wing morphing today. Dimitri has started a great postdoc with Jimmy Liao at the University of Florida.
14 November 2017New paper in Frontiers in Neuroscience. We measured the forces that hummingbirds load on an feeder when docked. This revealed that they guide hover feeding by prioritizing visual signals over potential tactile cues.
19 October 2017New paper in Nature Communications: We developed an allometric framework based on the force equation. Our analysis revealed that unfavourable scaling of power requirements within hummingbird species leads to morphological diversification among species.
23 August 2017Congratulations to Jolan Theriault for successfully defending her MSc thesis today. Jolan will be continuing in the lab as a PhD student.
24 April 2017Congratulations to Christina Harvey and to Graham Smyth! Both were awarded Canada Graduate Scholarships from NSERC to support their MSc research.
21 April 2017Andrea Gaede has been awarded a prestigious AAAS Judicial Branch Fellowship and will be moving to Washington, DC in September. Congratulations Dre!
21 March 2017Joe Bahlman has accepted a faculty position at California State University, Sacramento. Congratulations Joe!
5 January 2017New paper: We recorded from global visual motion neurons in the lentiformis mesencephali of hummingbirds and zebra finches. This study, now online at Current Biology, revealed unique response properties that provide a potential mechanism for the visual guidance of hovering flight in hummingbirds.
8 December 2016New paper: We used a combination of field and lab studies to determine how maneuvering performance of hummingbirds changes across elevations. This work is now online at Current Biology.
23 November 2016Congratulations to Benny Goller. He successfully defended his PhD dissertation on hummingbird visual guidance. Benny will be moving to Purdue University in January to start a postdoc with Esteban Fernandez-Juricic.
18 July 2016A new lab study on the visual guidance of course control during forward flight has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA..
12 May 2016Congratulations to Dimitri! He received the William S. Hoar Award for the best student oral presentation at the annual meeting of the Canadian Society of Zoologists.
26 April 2016Congratulations to Jolan Theriault! She was awarded a Canada Graduate Scholarship from NSERC to support her MSc research.
30 March 2016A new lab paper on the biomechanics of arcing turns by hummingbirds has been published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface .
2 March 2016Congratulations again to Roz! Today she received the Faculty of Science Excellence in Service Award for a postdoc. This award recognizes Roz for creating and leading workshops to help colleagues improve their knowledge of statistical analysis.
6 January 2016Congratulations to Roz Dakin, who received the Dorothy M. Skinner Award from the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology! This award recognizes one young female scientist each year who has demonstrated outstanding scholarship and shows high potential for continued excellence in research.
19 November 2015A new lab paper on the biomechanical determinants of maneuverability has been published in eLife.
16 October 2015A review paper on the biophysics of bird flight, written by the lab group, has appeared online for an upcoming special issue in the Canadian Journal of Zoology.
20 July 2015Congratulations to Paolo Segre, who has successfully defended his PhD dissertation on the biomechanics of maneuvering flight. Paolo is now a postdoc with Jeremy Goldbogen at Stanford University.
3 June 2015Congratulations to Tyee Fellows, who has successfully defended his MSc thesis on the temporal and spatial acuity of the hummingbird visual system.
8 April 2015Congratulations to Tyson Read, who has successfully defended his MSc thesis on the biomechanics of arcing turns.
18 March 2015A new collaborative aerodynamics study on wing aspect ratio has appeared in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.
15 January 2015Doug's work on hummingbird maneuverability is featured in Episode 3 ("Triumph") of the new David Attenborough series Conquest Of The Skies.
8 December 2014A new lab publication on the visual guidance of hovering flight has appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.
14 November 2014A new analysis of honeybee aerodynamics has appeared in Physiological and Biochemical Zoology.
30 July 2014A comparative study of hummingbird aerodynamics has appeared in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.
01 June 2014Tyee Fellows is awarded a Canada Graduate Scholarship from NSERC.
16 April 2014Dimitri Skandalis passed his comprehensive exam and is now a PhD candidate.
03 April 2014A new analysis of hummingbird systematics will appear in Current Biology.
01 April 2014Roslyn Dakin is awarded a prestigious NSERC postdoctoral fellowship to pursue her research in the lab!
16 August 2013Joe Bahlman won the best student presentation at IBRC 2013!
24 June 2013Congratulations to Amelia Stegeman who is off to UBC med school!
13 June 2013Amelia Stegeman proves she has mastered science by successfully defending her thesis on the development of a 3D hummingbird brain atlas. Congratulations!
16 May 2013The lab is very pleased that Dr. Andrea Gaede is joining, strengthening our neurobiology focus.
16 April 2013A Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Inner Workings focus on Avian Acrobatics by Prashant Nair is out. Features a dashing young Douglas Altshuler.
20 March 2013Congratulations to Benny Goller for passing his comprehensive exam! Benny is officially a PhD Candidate, graduating from Candidate for PhD Candidate.
19 March 2013The Altshuler, Lentink, and Srinivisan labs land a collaborative HFSP grant to examine the visual guidance of transitions between flight modes in birds.
Where to find us:
Department of Zoology
University of British Columbia
#4200-6270 University Blvd.
Canada V6T 1Z4
Lab Phone: (604) 822-2373