Swallows and heavy water – the making of a remarkable scientist

Professor Des Thompson, our Principal Adviser on Biodiversity, celebrates the pioneering work of life scientist Professor Dave Bryant, who celebrates his 70th birthday today.

Along with the spring return of swallows in 1972 a young lecturer arrived at Stirling University’s Department of Biology. Dave Bryant, fresh from finishing his PhD on bird physiology at Imperial College London, landed eager to put Stirling on the map for life science. Over the ensuing three decades he established an ecology group of world repute, and made Stirling synonymous with excellence in bird research.

University Staff photo

As an aspiring PhD student I met Dave in 1979 – he and Donald McLusky were carrying out cutting edge research on the ecology and conservation of the Inner Forth Estuary. I’d worked on shelduck on the Clyde for my undergraduate thesis, and Dave had recently discovered a local, massive moulting flock of these birds – exciting, as before then it was assumed most of Britain and Ireland’s population moulted in Helgoland Bight in the Waddensea.

I moved to Nottingham but kept in touch with Dave and marvelled at his ingenuity and energy. Much later I had the pleasure of examining his last of 40 or so PhD students at Stirling – one was Rhys Bullman, who went on to work for us as an ornithologist, but at the time stood out on account of the massive size of his thesis, matched by an outrageous afro-hairstyle.

Young Swallows, © Stevie Wilson

Young Swallows, © Stevie Wilson

Dave is a world authority on the breeding ecology of swallows and house martins. He pioneered the application of a technique using ‘doubly labelled water’ to study the ecology and eco-physiology of these and other birds, including dippers, great tits, seabirds and waders (D2O is a mixture of water used to measure metabolic rates, with the water heavier than normal because of the large amounts of the ‘heavy’ hydrogen isotope deuterium).

Dipper with a beakful of insects, © Lorne Gill

Dipper with a beakful of insects, © Lorne Gill

Working at the forefront of technology he was one of the first to use radio-transmitters and genetic markers to understand individual variation in bird behaviour and energy expenditure. His reach became global, and as an example of this he got involved in a New Zealand Government funded study of the flightless kakapo, one of the world’s rarest birds, which contributed to immediate population recovery. Other birds studied there included the takahē, blue duck and black robin.

Always keen to involve volunteers in research and surveys, Dave led the establishment of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Scotland Office in Stirling’s Biology Department. He developed important estuarine studies of waders, looking at the effects of coastal realignment and engineering works, and has had involvement in scores of conservation projects.

Stirling University viewed from the Wallace Monument, © Lorne Gill/SNH

Stirling University viewed from the Wallace Monument, © Lorne Gill/SNH

Becoming Head of Department, establishing a five-star ecology group, and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1999, Dave was enticed to the University of Exeter in 2003 to launch a new Biology Department on a fledgling campus in Cornwall. That year he gave the prestigious Witherby Memorial Lecture at the annual conference of the BTO on ‘Swallows – life in an uncertain world’. Well, there was nothing uncertain about his own migration south. Cornwall’s Centre for Ecology and Conservation became an international leader, currently hosting more than 150 research students and postdoctoral researchers. It played a major part in the University’s recent top three ranking for Biology in the Guardian University Guide 2016 (just behind Oxbridge).

Now living within walking distance of Stirling University, Dave is encouraging yet more cohorts of field biologists. An adept skier (an on-going family passion), mischievously teasing when confronted with any form of academic pomposity, and highly adept in judging talent and skill in individuals, Dave is a place maker. Whenever you visit the beautiful university campus, perhaps catching a glimpse of swallows skimming across the lovely lake, just reflect on how one special person has put this place on the map. He could have settled anywhere in the early 1970s, but thankfully he chose Stirling. Happy Birthday Dave, and here’s to many more.

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