Dr Steve Portugal

Personal profile

I’m a comparative ecophysiologist. My research is located at the interface of the physiology, sensory ecology and behaviour of vertebrates. More information about my research, activities, publications and collaborators can be found on the below website:

http://sjportugal.com 

The common theme of my work focuses on how animals adapt their behaviour and ecology to the challenges of their environment, within the constraints of their own physiological and anatomical limitations. Such questions are particularly important in the light of global environmental change and exploitation of natural resources, in the emerging field of conservation physiology.

If you're interested in working with me, as a volunteer, for an undergraduate field or lab project, PhD student, postdoc or collaborator, get in touch! 

PhD Students

Dan Sankey (RHUL, Primary)

Sam Jones (RHUL, Primary)

Lucy Taylor (Oxford, Secondary)

 

I currently teach on and convene the Animal Behaviour Module (BS2140). 

Research interests

Animal Physiology and Energetics

 

Avian Migration and Moult: The Annual Cycle

My research in avian migration and moult is focused on the energetic costs of specific events within the annual cycle, and how birds can be such endurance athletes.

In particular, how animals prepare their bodies for energetically demanding events such as migration, and what mechanisms animals can deploy to recover from such events. My interest in this topic began with my PhD 10 years ago, with Prof Pat Butler and Dr Jon Green and we’re still working through data from wild barnacle geese, and eider ducks (with Prof Magella Guillemette).

 

Aggression Physiology in Fish

Air breathing fish like Siamese fighting fish have a trade off between keeping up aggressive displays to other males while maintaining enough O2 stores. This increased energetic requirement during display necessitates more trips to the surface, which puts individuals at risk from surface-based predation and attack from behind. My research interests here (with Dr Craig White, University of Queensland) are how Siamese’s manage their O2 levels during male-male interactions.

 

 

Biomechanics of Weird Things

I’m interested in the freaks of the animal kingdom, particularly animals that have slightly strange ways of getting about or getting their food. Current work is focusing on mole rats (with Dr Chris Faulkes, QMUL), secretary birds (with Dr Monica Daley, RVC) and walking fish (with Dr Stephanie Pierce, Harvard).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flight

Group dynamics and physiology in birds (Cluster Flocking)

Homing pigeons provide an excellent model system for studying group the pros and cons of living in groups. This includes aerodynamic interactions, group decision making and navigation, behavioural and personality traits and energetics.

My current research is looking at how different members of a group contribute to route learning, and how this interacts with physiological parameters. Pigeon work is ongoing, both writing up and finishing work with the Structure and Motion Lab  (with Prof Alan Wilson and Dr James Usherwood, RVC), and beginning new group dynamics work mixed with physiology and behaviour. This work is in collaboration with Dr Dora Biro at the University of Oxford and our PhD student Lucy Taylor who has just started the main body of her BBSRC funded PhD focusing on pigeon group physiology.

 

 

V Formation Flight

One of the main theories that has persisted to explain this distinctive ‘V’ formation is that birds are attempting to conserve energy by taking advantage of the upwash vortex fields created by the wings of the birds in front. Aerodynamic theory has subsequently been used to predict where birds should optimally position themselves in relation to other members within the V, to maximise these energy savings. These predictions, however, are based on a fixed-wing principle, like that of an aeroplane for example; very different from the scenario of a flying bird and flapping wing.

Our research on V formation flight (undertaken at the Structure and Motion Lab, RVC) focuses on migratory flights of the critically endangered Waldrapp Ibis (Geronticus eremita). This opportunity was made possible by human-led migrations taking place in Austria as part of a reintroduction scheme, via the Waldrappteam, whereby imprinted young ibis are taught to follow a microlight. Short daily flights help the birds learn the migration route from where they were hatched in Austria to their wintering grounds in southern Italy (with the Waldrappteam). We equipped the ibis with data loggers, to investigate positioning within the flock, and the aerodynamic interactions taking place between individuals. The work has now been published in Nature.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eggs and Eggshells 

Cuckoo Physiology

People have been fascinated by the ability of cuckoos to mimic the egg patterning of their hosts for centuries. I am interested in what makes the embryo developing inside the cuckoo egg so special. Upon hatching, the recently hatched cuckoo chick begins to evict the eggs and chicks of the host species, showing incredible strength for an altricial chick.

I’m just embarking on a project that aims to investigate the physiology, energetics and morphology of cuckoo embryonic development, particularly in comparison to their hosts. More to follow! Much of this project will involve fieldwork in Panama, Czech Republic, Australia and the USA. This project involves an international team of cuckoo experts and muscle and bone specialists, including Prof Mark Hauber (Hunter College NY), Dr Marcel Honza (Acad Sci Czech Repub.), Dr Christine Riehl (Harvard), Prof Andrew Pitsillides (RVC) and Dr Claire Spottiswoode (Cambridge University). 

Eggshell Physiology and Surface Structure

I’m interested in how the eggshells of different species are adapted to their specific nest environment, both in structure, colour and physiology. Through collaboration with Dr Phill Cassey (University of Adelaide) and the Natural History Museum, we have been able to work with museum specimens to investigate broad scale patterns in eggshell physiology, particularly focusing on species which breed in ‘extreme’ environments. Microscopy work has revealed how nano-structures can work to assist in gas exchange, in Guillemots for example, and how such structures can keep the eggshell surface clean.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Avian Vision

My interest in wind farms and birds had led me to wanting to answer some fundamental questions about avian collisions with wind farms, power lines and turbines.

Much of this work is inspired by and in collaboration with Prof Graham Martin. Recent work has involved the beginnings of an investigation into the susceptibility of vultures and other large raptors to such collisions with man-made objects. A recent paper, in collaboration with Prof Graham Martin (University of Birmingham) and The Hawk Conservancy Trust (Dr Campbell Murn) published in Ibis, ascertained why certain species groups of vultures frequently fall victim to turbines and power lines and others apparently not at all. The main finding was that vulture species that are frequently killed in such interactions are essentially blind to their forward travel.

 

 

 

 

Career

2016- Senior Lecturer in Animal Behaviour and Physiology

2014-2016 Lecturer in Animal Behaviour and Physiology, Royal Holloway, University of London.

2011-2014 EPSRC Postdoctoral Researcher: Structure and Motion Laboratory, Royal Veterinary College.

2008-2011 Leverhulme/HFSP Postdoctoral Researcher: School of Biosciences, University of Birmingham.

2004-2008 BBSRC funded PhD: School of Biosciences, University of Birmingham (with Prof Pat Butler and Dr Jon Green. Examined by Profs Graham Martin and Theunis Piersma).

2003-2004 ESF funded MSc in Ecology: School of Biological Sciences, University of Wales (Bangor).

2002 RSPB. Research Assistant on the Shetland Islands.

1998-2001 BSc (Hons.): University of Wales (Aberystwyth).

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