Scientists at the University of British Columbia and the University of Birmingham have discovered how bar-headed geese are able to outperform the world’s most accomplished athletes in levels of stamina and resistance to low oxygen at high altitude, which could lead to new ways of improving human performance in extreme conditions.

Graham Scott, a doctoral student at UBC under the supervision of Dr Stuart Egginton (UoB) compared muscle tissue in bar-headed geese with low-altitude waterfowl such as barnacle, pink-footed and greylag geese. They found that bar-headed geese have a unique set of physiological features in their flight muscles.

Dr Egginton, from the University’s Centre for Cardiovascular Sciences, explains: “We have found that bar-headed geese have around six to ten per cent more aerobic muscle fibres in their main flight muscles than low-altitude birds.

“They also have more capillaries around the muscle fibres and their mitochondria (the cell’s power source) are closer to the cell membrane, and therefore closer to the capillaries, allowing oxygen to be carried and diffused more effectively to the flight muscles.”

Bar-headed geese routinely fly over the Himalayas during their annual migration between India and China at heights of up to 9, 000 metres, heights that equate to those maintained by commercial planes.

At these heights there is only a quarter of the oxygen available than is present at sea-level, meaning that man requires supplemental oxygen from cylinders to enable ascent, yet the geese are able to undertake high-energy exercise. Dr Egginton compares this to a human running a marathon at the same altitudes. The results of the study will enable scientists to better understand the limitations of human physiology, and discover new ways in which they might be overcome.


Further Media Information

Dr Stuart Egginton is available for interview, please contact Anna Mitchell on 0121 414 6029 / 07920 593946