New Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometry Laboratory provides critical data to identify US Airways bird strike as migratory Canada Geese

The Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute (MCI) scientists, working with researchers at the National Zoological Park (NZP), the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), the Federal Aviation Administration, and the National Transportation Safety Board, analyzed elemental isotopes from feather remains from the January15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 bird strike. The plane took off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport, and then collided with a flock of geese approximately 2,900 feet above the ground. The pilot made an heroic and successful emergency landing in the Hudson River. MCI scientists, using new Thermo Scientific gas isotope ratio mass spectrometers, compared the stable-hydrogen isotopes of the bird-strike feathers to samples from migratory Canada geese and from resident geese close to LaGuardia Airport. Analysis revealed that the isotope values of the geese were most similar to migratory Canada geese from the Labrador region, and were significantly different from those residing year-round near New York City. This knowledge is essential for wildlife professionals to develop policies and techniques that will reduce the risk of future bird-airplane collisions. The team’s manuscript, the first publication from the new mass spectrometry center housed at MCI, was published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. With this auspicious start, the mass spectrometry center will contribute to the growing body of research on topics such as avian migration, wetland ecology, and wildlife dietary history. In addition, the center will develop new applications for stable isotope analysis in conservation and archaeological science as well as provide traditional services to those disciplines already heavily based on stable isotope analysis. In its first year of operations, the center conducted more than 6,000 analyses, with over 2,000 for NZP projects, and over 1,000 each for the Smithsonian Environment Research Center (SERC), NMNH, and MCI projects.