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Bird feathers and nuclear science? Not a connection I’d have made easily, until I stumbled across a reference to feather-mapping Australia, a poetic concept that had me intrigued. Turns out it’s not a poetic concept at all, but a scientific one.

The idea is to collect feathers from wetlands and use nuclear techniques to identify the differences by means of stable isotopes, and thereby uncover information about nutritional ecology and changing habitats. All without the invasiveness of banding or chipping. In this project, citizen scientists, plodding around in damp places and picking up feathers, and nuclear scientists, operating high resolution X-ray fluorescence equipment, collaborate and provide data crucial in managing wetlands under threat from climate change and land use.

I’m intrigued by the way one discovery leads to another. As I was listening to the radio the other day, my ears pricked up when I heard the word “isotope”, not something they’d have done a week ago! I learn that the same nuclear technology is being used on bodies in mass graves unearthed by a bulldozer in 2001 in Vilnius: they are the soldiers of Napoleon’s army in retreat from Moscow. Stable isotope analysis allows anthropologist Dr Tosha Dupras and her students and colleagues to rebuild a sense of individuals: their place of origin, their diet, their health. There are 3250 bodies in these graves, 70 of which have been closely analysed so far.


As I check facts, I discover that the same technology is being applied to analysis of paint used by Picasso. I will go no further!