Meet the Winners:

Dr. Carina Nebel

2024 BioOne Ambassador

BioOne Ambassador Award

Advancing Our Understanding of an Important Flagship Species, the Golden Eagle, by Combining Scientific Methods and Cultural Traditions

Ecosystems are increasingly affected by human activities while resources for conservation are limited, forcing researchers to prioritize species or populations and habitats, and to continuously develop more efficient monitoring methods. However, traditional approaches often entail a direct interaction with animals, for example through capturing, marking and GPS tagging. While these methods are incredibly important, they can lead to stress, or risk altered behaviours or habitat abandonment.

This dilemma is especially pronounced when studying species that are sensitive to human disturbance. Among these are eagles, hawks and falcons, which also play important stabilising roles as top predators ensuring ecosystem health. Finding new efficient ways to comprehensively study raptors while minimizing disturbance is a fundamental component of my research.

Mongolia, a landlocked country in Asia, is a unique destination for studying wildlife and a rare hotspot for raptor diversity. Although the country’s landscapes are largely untouched, raptors are under pressure, specifically due to the expansion of energy infrastructure. Because of this, I made Mongolia a research focus to advance our understanding of its biodiversity and potentially emerging threats and genetic bottlenecks.

A falconry Golden Eagle and its hunter’s horse in the background. © Megan Murgatroyd & Petra Sumasgutner
A falconry Golden Eagle and its hunter’s horse in the background. The traditional Kazakh eagle hunters are flying their falconry birds from horseback. © Megan Murgatroyd & Petra Sumasgutner
A fascinating aspect of Mongolia’s cultural heritage is the traditional falconry practice among the Kazakh eagle hunters in the remote Altai mountains. These people live in close relationships with Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos), which are used for hunting mammals like foxes and hares to supply fur. This tradition has been practiced for centuries and provides a unique opportunity for scientific research as these eagles are collected as nestlings or trapped as juveniles on passage, and traditionally returned into the wild after the hunting season. By collaborating with local Kazakh eagle hunters, we accessed a large number of Golden Eagles, to gather morphometric and genetic data without causing additional disturbance to the wild population.
Eagle researcher meets Eagle hunter: gently, a feather is plucked from the breast of the falconry Golden Eagle. This procedure is harmless to the Eagle and one feather per bird is enough for science. © Stephen Wessels
Eagle researcher meets Eagle hunter: gently, a feather is plucked from the breast of the falconry Golden Eagle. This procedure is harmless to the Eagle and one feather per bird is enough for science. © Stephen Wessels

Using feathers collected from these falconry birds and combining them with data from museum collections, allows us to study their population genetics and phylogeographic history. In this field, we try to understand how past conditions have created present patterns of genetic variation, how populations are connected today and importantly, how we can conserve this connectivity. Bridging the gap between fundamental research and applied conservation is a core principle of my research activities.

My studies showed that the Golden Eagles in the Altai mountains harbour high levels of genetic diversity, which makes this population not only valuable in terms of individual numbers, but also a true stronghold in terms of genetic diversity. Furthermore, we were able to make inferences about the species’ distant past: the relatively high relatedness of eagles in Mongolia and Northern Europe suggests that Northern Europe was repopulated from Asia after the last Ice Age some 10,000 years ago. Contrary, the incomplete phylogenetic separation of eagles from Mongolia and North America indicates that there has been continued geneflow between the continents not too long ago. This leads to the hypothesis that Golden Eagles used Beringia, a former land bridge between Asia and North America during the last Ice Age as a corridor to move from one continent to the other. Likely, geneflow between the continents has ceased with the disappearance of this land bridge.

My research advances the field and our collective understanding of the genetic diversity and distribution of Golden Eagles, providing fundamental insights for future conservation action. Leveraging novel approaches to study wildlife fosters a more sustainable relationship between research and local cultural heritage. By advocating for the protection of vulnerable species and ecosystems, I am committed to leaving a positive legacy on the natural world for future generations and use my research as a vehicle to achieve this.

This response is in reference to:

Genetic Analysis of Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) from the Mongol-Altai: A Hotspot of Diversity and Implications for Global Phylogeography

Journal of Raptor Research, 57(3): 359-374 (2023).
Carina Nebel, Elisabeth Haring, Megan Murgatroyd, Shane C. Sumasgutner, Sundev Gombobaatar, Petra Sumasgutner, Frank E. Zachos

Dr. Carina Nebel

Dr. Carina Nebel

Advancing Our Understanding of an Important Flagship Species, the Golden Eagle, by Combining Scientific Methods and Cultural Traditions

Raptors are charismatic species due to their grace and strength. They are often top predators in their natural habitats, which makes them crucial bioindicators of ecosystem health. Through my research, I study raptor population viability and develop new methodological approaches to conserve these iconic species and their environments.

What drew you to the research topic you explored in your submission?

There are multiple factors that drew me to this Golden Eagle project: Initially, I was lured in by the charisma of this magnificent species, but it did not take long before I was captivated by the secrets hidden within their DNA. In Mongolia, there is a great need to expand our knowledge about its raptors due to rapid expansions and developments in human activities, in particular energy infrastructure. This means that there might already be conservation concerns forMongolia’s raptors without us even knowing. The traditional falconry practice in the Altai mountains provided a perfect opportunity to advance our understanding of Golden Eagles and raptor conservation.

How do you see your work contributing to public policy, citizen science, and/or science education more broadly?

The high genetic diversity we found in the Golden Eagles from the Altai mountains emphasizes this population‘s importance for the entire species. Implementing conservation measures to protect Golden Eagles, such as mitigating the risk of electrocution on energy infrastructure, would not only benefit the Eagles but also other species within their ecosystem. Furthermore, I hope this study inspires to protect both natural environments and local cultural heritages.

What are your continuing research goals for the future (near and/or far)? What topics, areas, subjects are you interested in exploring?

I am currently working as a postdoctoral researcher in Finland, where I study the White-tailed Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla). Here, I also try to find innovative ways to obtain my data: By using feathers that are collected from nests in the wild, I can identify individuals by their unique genetic signature. This allows me to ask all kinds of life-history and conservation-relevant questions without interfering with their natural life’s. In my current project, I am exploring how energy infrastructure, in particular wind turbines, influence adult survival. Understanding this relationship is important to make predictions about population-level consequences in a world that will strongly depend on green energy sources in the future.

ContactInformation

Dr. Carina Nebel

carina.nebel@gmail.com

For information about the Raptor Research Foundation, please visit their website:

Raptor Research Foundation

For questions about BioOne or the BioOne Ambassador Award, please contact:

Amanda Rogers

BioOne Publishing
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