In conversation with Steve Portugal

30 November 2019 - By: Angela Brunett

In conversation with Steve Portugal

“I find it really hard to work on just one topic because I find so many facets of animal physiology fascinating”. Naked mole rats, cuckoos, egg shells, bird migrations – Co-opted Member of the SEB Animal Biology group Steve Portugal has a diverse range of career interests but these all share a common theme of seeking to understand how animals fundamentally work. As he relates to Caroline Wood, his own career journey has had a fascinating route, reminiscent of the wandering migrations performed by many of the birds he studies.

The call of the wild

Steve’s passion for birds goes right back to his early childhood, when he spent his school holidays roaming the south of England in search of rare species. “I remember seeing a Grey Phalarope that had been blown off course – a bird smaller than your hand” he says. “It was on an ice-covered lake and I thought ‘How on earth is that bird not dead?!’” It sparked a fascination to understand how the physiology of animal bodies allowed them to survive extreme environments and to perform energetically-demanding feats such as migration. Ultimately, this lead to studying marine and freshwater biology at the University of Aberystwyth. “I originally applied to study zoology but I found the course to be heavily based on genetics, so I switched to a subject offering more whole-organism biology” he explains. Nevertheless, this didn’t automatically lead to the academic route. Instead, Steve worked for an investment bank for a few years then undertook an interrailing voyage around Europe. After answering a chance job advertisement, he then found himself on the Shetland Isles counting Skuas for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). “It was an utterly magical experience – remote, windswept and lots of birdlife but hardly any people. I would happily go back” he says. Despite his beautiful surroundings, it was here that Steve felt the call to resume his studies. “I wanted to understand the rationale behind these surveys and the methodology involved in designing and analysing experiments” he explains.

Back to the studies…

He returned to civilisation to take up a PhD at the University of Birmingham, studying how avian physiology responds to energetically-costly events such as breeding, moulting and migration. This was under the supervision of Patrick Butler, a pioneer in using heart rates to determine animal energetics. It was here that Steve developed his love for automatic logging technologies that would come to define his career, appreciating the sheer volume of data they could capture during different activities and life stages. “We used bio-loggers to compare the metabolism of wild Barnacle Geese in Svalbard with a captive population on campus” he says. “I was very fortunate in that my PhD combined both lab and field elements – I suppose I was a bit greedy in wanting to do both, and I still do!” His results indicated that the captive birds show a dampened response to annual events, most likely because they experienced a different light regime to the birds from the Arctic Circle. It was also during his PhD that Steve first became involved with the SEB, thanks to the encouragement of his supervisor. “What really appealed to me about the society was how much it supported early-career researchers, for instance in providing travel grants and opportunities to give talks” he says. “The friendly atmosphere at the conferences also made them less daunting, making it possible for me to interact with established academics”.

He remained in Birmingham for a postdoc to study the physiology and ultrastructure of egg shells. “It was a fascinating project but one that often kept me on edge because they were so fragile” he says. His favourite discovery was that eggs from species where the incubating parent typically has wet feathers have different structural properties that affect the water vapour conductance. “This ensures that the humidity difference is sufficient for enough water to leave the egg so that the air sac can form” he says. Following this, Steve moved to the Structure and Motion Laboratory at the Royal Veterinary College in London. Here, he studied the energetic dynamics of flocking birds in a collaborative project involving Waldrapp Team, a conservation organisation that was reintroducing the rare Northern Bald Ibis into Europe. Being bred in captivity, the birds had to be taught their traditional migration routes to their overwintering grounds in southern Europe by flying behind a microlight plane containing their human foster parents. “It gave us a unique opportunity to use bio-loggers to understand the aerodynamic interactions going on when birds fly together” Steve says. The results demonstrated that the birds generally adopted the most energy saving formation, but also that they took pains to share the burden of work evenly. If a particularly keen bird put in a hard day’s work at the front for instance, the next day his fellows made sure they had a rest at the back. “The birds have a complicated social network – they remember each other and what they’ve done. The more work you are prepared to do for others, the more they will reward you” says Steve.

Expanding horizons

Just two days after his postdoc ended in 2014, Steve took up a permanent lectureship at Royal Holloway University of London, which remains his current institution. Since then, his research projects have expanded exponentially and now include working with the Natural History Museum’s extensive collection of egg shells, collaborating with the RSPB to reduce the number of collisions between birds and buildings and analysing the subterranean locomotion of naked mole rats. “I’ve also become interested in avian brood parasites, such as cuckoos” he says. “In particular, we want to understand the energetics that allow the young birds to develop the strength to dispatch the young of their unwitting foster parents”.

Despite being so busy, Steve was glad to accept his new position at the SEB, being keen to continue the work to help early-career researchers develop.  “In research, no one is an island – you need a support network” he says. “I was keen to become more formally involved so that I could provide that role to early-career researchers that I was fortunate enough to have”. He also sees it as an opportunity to promote the role of science in society. “As scientists in the post-truth era, we can feel under fire from people accusing us of not knowing what we are doing” he says. “Having a collective voice makes a huge difference in how we interact with society”. In the meantime, looks forward to indulging his research passions at SEB Prague this summer. “Bio-logging is such a fast-developing field that even within a year there are so many technological advancements. I’m really looking forward to learning about the latest progress at the meeting.”

It’s a busy lifestyle but in his rare leisure time, Steve maintains ‘an obsession’ with tennis and badminton. As a birder, it fits that he enjoys his eggs, with Italian omelettes being his signature dish. But just as in his youth, he still enjoys combing the countryside, seeking out animals in the wild. “My dream is to see a wild Harpy Eagle in South America” he concludes.