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Duquesne Biology Team Recognized for Research of Mysterious Golden Eagle

Dr. Brady Porter's research rides on the wings of eagles-golden eagles, specifically.

This spring, the U.S. Forest Service recognized biologist Porter and graduate student Maria Wheeler as contributing members of the Eastern Eagle Working Group. The international collaboration of 20-plus institutions concentrates on golden eagles.

Compared to its bald cousin, the golden eagle remains an enigma. Upward of an estimated 1,000 to 2,500 exist east of the Mississippi River, despite threats by urbanization, habitat loss, wind turbines and lead poisoning, among other factors.

The working group formed in 2010 to learn more about the golden and its habits, with a focus on large-scale conservation. Porter, an associate professor of biology nationally for his work with fish and birds, has been with the group from the start.

Golden eagles summer in Quebec, Ontario and Labrador and winter in the United States, sometimes as far south as Florida. Scientists wanted to learn how many goldens live in the East and where. Separated by mountains and flyways, are they a different subspecies from the eagles in the West?

"Our part of the story was genetics, which hadn't been looked at before," Porter said.

Porter and Wheeler found that Eastern and Western eagles genetically are the same. But their genetic study could have implications beyond bird populations. Because this study covers the time before Western goldens were reintroduced in the East (the 1980s through early 2000s) as well as afterward, it could impact future reintroductions being managed to maintain groups' genetic integrity.

Genetic studies can be comfortable lab work with DNA material from historic populations, like eagles kept in museum display cases. Wheeler received grants from the American Museum of Natural History, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and the Raptor Research Foundation for this, setting a genetic baseline for the last century.

Eagles in rehabilitation centers provided feathers and sometimes blood for current information. (After the DNA extraction, feathers are sent to the Native American Repository in Colorado because of their spiritual significance.)

The work got dicier when scientists waited hours to cast nets over this premier predator, whose talons can slice through the thickest leather gloves. More than a cup of courage and permits of all sorts are involved. But so are 30 thrilling minutes with one of nature's masterpieces as the birds are examined, banded and equipped with telemetry.

"It's pretty sweet," said Wheeler, who traveled to Canada and Sweden to compare eagle genetics. "On one hand, you know that these birds are fierce predators, but at the same time, they are so light! They weigh about as much as a gallon of milk."

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability. Follow Duquesne University on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.