Graduate student Megan Gall (l) and Esteban Fernandez-Juricic with the Visual Field Apparatus.
(Photo by David J. Nelson)
Called the Visual Field Apparatus (VFA), the equipment allows Fernandez-Juricic and his students to use an ophthalmic reflex technique to estimate the 3-D distribution of the different portions of the visual fields of birds – binocular, lateral, and blind area. By definition, visual fields are the areas around the bird’s head from which they can see.
“There are approximately 9,600 species of birds in the world and each species has a different visual system so we are trying to understand what factors have affected the evolution of the visual fields and why some species see the world in a particular way,” said Fernandez-Juricic, whose line of research is ornithology (i.e., the study of birds). “Is it because of food? Is it because of predators? A combination of both? Is it because of the habitat in which they live? The visual systems of birds are extremely complex and we have little understanding as to how they evolved and the factors that have shaped their evolution. Those are some of the things we will be researching.”
Last fall, Fernandez-Juricic and graduate student Megan Gall went to the University of Birmingham, England, to study the technique used extensively by the creator of the VFA, Professor Graham Martin. While there, they received three days of training on the apparatus from Martin.
“He is the one who came up with a standard technique to increase the ability to measure the visual fields of different species of birds in both the lab and the field. We are going to specialize in measuring the visual fields of small birds,” said Fernandez-Juricic. “In the past, it was very difficult to do this because most of the visual type measurements were done with equipment that only was suitable for pigeons. Now, the VFA will make it much easier and give us a higher level of accuracy.”
Fernandez-Juricic was originally going to set up a long-distance collaboration with Martin, wanting to use bird species that were in the United States and United Kingdom. That, however, was kind of limiting according to Fernandez-Juricic, so the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics supported the purchase of the apparatus. The custom-made piece took approximately four months for fabrication and delivery.
“There are only two VFAs in the world and we have one of them,” said Fernandez-Juricic, noting that the apparatus allows him and his students a unique opportunity to study an aspect of bird vision, of which there is little known. “That’s one of the nice things about having this piece of equipment on campus. We can do basic research to better understand the evolution of visual fields, but at the same time by using this piece of equipment, we are doing research that has really strong applied implications, such as, how birds detect visually certain objects, like aircraft. Airports are having problems with bird-aircraft collisions, and one of the gaps to develop novel management strategies is to find out how birds see objects.”
A recent National Science Foundation grant of $164,995 will help Fernandez-Juricic and his students continue their study of the evolution of visual fields in birds and how different species use their visual systems to get information from their environment.