Tag Archives: biology

The Future of Voucher Specimens

Kannan, R. 2007. New bird descriptions without proper voucher specimens: reflections after the Bugun Liocichla case. Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society 104: 12-18.

This story begins with the discovery of the Bugun Liocichla, a spectacular but possibly rare bird discovered recently in India. The formal description of the bird stirred up a lot of controvery, as no type specimen was sent to a museum or examination, as is the formal procedure. Rather, the authors decided to take photographs and feather samples, as they believed that the species was too rare to allow for the taking of an individual. This raises some important questions about the current state of museum specimens, and whether they remain relevant in biology today, and if traditional practices are conservationally unadvised. Continue reading


Spring Migration Timing

Currently re-reading Scott Weidensaul’s Living on the Wind, a personal account of bird migration in the Americas, while studying how and why birds migrate, and what the future of migratory bird conversation looks like. In high school, it was one of my favorite books, as it combined both my scientific fascination of birds along with my more personal connection to birds and their environments. There’s a lot of really scientifically interesting stuff on the mechanisms of bird migration, but there’s also some really emotional stuff about the death of thousands of Swainson’s Hawks due to insecticides in Argentina, for instance.

Re-reading it now, it’s not quite as good as I remembered. The book doesn’t have a clear narrative arc, which I’m fine with, but it also doesn’t do the ‘sprawling New Yorker style’ that McPhee does so well, and that I’ve been reading so much of lately. Instead, there really doesn’t seem to be much of a structure at all, and feels like facts and stories haphazardly thrown together. There are probably better ways to structure this book.

Anyways, one small factoid caught my attention as I was reading the second chapter. It was mentioned that birds know when to migrate based primarily on two factors: genetic predisposition, and photoperiod (length of daylight). Continue reading

Calling In All Kinds

I’m done with Finals! But before you get jealous, and envision Roger lying beside some totally clutch lagoon with sea turtles lazily swimming by, my situation is actually slightly more complicated. Though I’m done with Finals, that means that I’ve started on my Directed Research project, a massive effort that will consume my life for the next month.

I’ve chosen to have my project advised by my Forest Management professor, a jolly young guy who’s totally obsessed with trees, cricket, and his fiance. There’s four other students doing their research with him, and us five students have already started forging close bonds.

Warning: A lot of Biology nerdiness ahead

Dr. Curran’s overarching research goal is basically to investigate drought resistance traits that are present in dry rainforest trees, and use those traits to predict what wet rainforest species would survive the increasing aridity associate with global warming.

I was reading his PhD thesis, which basically concerns the same topic except applied to the less seasonal environments of New South Wales, when I stumbled across a really intriguing result that was almost lost in the depths of the thesis. He found an extremely significant relationship between leaf size and the angle that leaves hang under the branch (leaf angle). Extremely significant, in that the P-value was less than 0.001. That’s intense.

The relationship between the traits was positively correlated, in that leaf size will increase with leaf angle and vice versa. However, there were two species with very high leaf sizes and leaf angles, and if you took those out of the analysis…suddenly you got a negative correlation, and it was still statistically significant! I was completely blown away by this. Dr. Curran explained it by tying it in with drought resistance strategies, which I’ll buy. A positive correlation implies a tradeoff between leaf size and leaf angle, which would likely work for the larger-leaved deciduous species who are drought avoidant. For the smaller-leaved sclerophyllous species though, it seems that they adopt a different strategy, where both traits are favorable and ensure that the plants are totally drought tolerant.

So my research will be specifically focused on this relationship between leaf size and leaf angle, and also any other significant combinations of coordinated traits. Dr. Curran found those results in the dry rainforest of New South Wales, and I want to see if they apply to the dry rainforest of Queensland, which is far more seasonal. Even more interesting, I want to see what kind of relationships appear in the wet rainforest around the Centre here, since Dr. Curran didn’t investigate that in his thesis. I am really, really excited at seeing what comes out of this.

End Biology nerdiness

Since we want to compare trees in wet rainforest with trees in the dry near-deserts, it was necessary to take a field trip out into the Outback! So last week, we spent three days at Undara National Park and Forty Mile Scrub National Park. We pretty much worked from dawn to dusk to collect samples to bring back to the lab for analysis. It was completely exhausting, but possibly the most rewarding field work that I’ve ever done.

We did get one break though: the park rangers gave us a free tour of the famous Undara Lava Tubes. Basically, this massive volcano erupted thousands of years ago, forming huge rivers of lava. Awesome. The surface of the river hardened, forming this solid shell of basaltic rock, while liquid lava continued to flow through. You can still witness this occurring in Hawaii. Today, there aren’t any more rivers of lava sadly, but you can still see the hardened lava tubes, which basically look like long, cylindrical caves, filled with bats. It normally costs quite a lot of money to get tours of these lava tubes, but as research scientists, we got the tours for free! Other highlights of the trip: two Emus around the campsite, and a stop at some relaxing hot springs on the way back, which was really surreal. It was just this normal-looking creek flowing through a forest, but you step in the water and it’s boiling freaking hot.

And now for the past few days, we’ve been collecting the wet rainforest data, finishing this afternoon. I’ve been ripped apart by wait-a-while thorns, but I’ve managed to successfully avoid both stinging trees and leeches, with today probably being the last day I will ever encounter the stinging tree. A sad day to be sure, I shed many tears. After this, it’s a week in the lab processing data, and then I’m getting started on that 40 page paper I gotta write. Gulp. It’s looking like you may not be hearing from me much for the rest of April.

So I guess I’ll leave with some more photos then. I haven’t gotten to the internet cafe in several weeks, so these are all old pictures, from the trip to Chillagoe back in February.

The Royal Arch Caves, which are actually aboveground, inside the hills.

At the swimming hole. I think this is one of the best photos I’ve ever taken.

A road sign on the drive out. This is no joke, it’s apparently a very serious problem, and we had a few close calls ourselves.

Danger Danger Danger

That last post must have jinxed me or something. We headed out into the field the next morning, to the same forest fragment as before with the wait-a-whiles and stinging trees, to cut some more transects. Halfway into the second transect, it happened. I touched the stinging tree. I actually touched it! All of my wonderful dreams finally came true! I started drifting into a beautiful meadow, skylarks singing their songs on the wing as a rainbow soared over the sky, my dreams, they’d come true! Or maybe the pain was just making me go crazy, haha.

No but seriously, it’s not bad at all. The first few minutes, okay, pretty intense. It was a lot like my experience with Stinging Nettle last year, except this time I’d somehow gotten stung through my pants, and I started to come to grips with the fact that I’d have to deal with this for months. The stinging tree has clinched the award for greatest tree of all time at this point.

But then, turns out that the pain isn’t continuous; it’s not like my knee will throb with pain every moment that I’m awake for the next few months. It comes and goes, I’ll completely forget about it for hours on end, then for two minutes my knee will just spontaneously burst into really sharp pains, only to disappear just as suddenly, and I forget about it again.

And then, it even turns out that the pulses of pain only happened on the first few days. Right now, I am just about 100% okay, and I think it has to do with how I was stung. One of my professors posted a long article written by a scientist who had done her PhD thesis on these stinging trees, and it gave a pretty comprehensive history of the plant. How it works: Tiny silica hairs are found on the leaves and stem, and when someone brushes against them, they break off the plant and embed themselves into the skin. Whenever these hairs are exposed to moisture or to sudden temperature changes, they burst and release a neuro-toxin which causes all the pain, though scientists are still unsure as to how this neurotoxin exactly functions and triggers the actual pain. Anyways, the reason you stay in pain for so long is that the body cannot break down silica, so hairs can stay embedded for months before bursting. So I think I got lucky: most of the silica hairs probably got stuck on my pants, not my knee, so I should make a full recovery very very soon, if not already. I’ve done my laundry too, which is good, hopefully all the silica hairs will wash off, because apparently they also stay active for a really long time. A dried specimen kept at a herbarium in Brisbane was collected in 1910, and it still causes pain to those who touch it. Amazing. Also of note, when one of my other professors first moved to the area, he accidentally walked into a field of stinging trees while wearing shorts, and required extensive hospital treatment for shock and for lymph node swelling, and got injected with Morphine as part of the recovery process. Incredible. Best plant ever.

So yeah, I touched the tree, but I’m fine! I had a lot of fun while the pain lasted, and now I’m starting to wonder if I might be able to get stung more so that I can build up a resistance to it. Haha, no I probably won’t be trying that. But this was a nice little intro, I’ll be much more prepared the next time around. Though it’s sort of demoralizing to know that you can still get stung through your clothes. One of my friends got stung through a rain jacket and t-shirt, and it caused welts. Intense.

Just for some more quick science, we also got to read a quick article on leeches. Most land leeches have three jaws, causing a y-shaped incision, but the Australian land leeches only have two jaws, causing a v-shaped incision. I thought that was really, really cool. Also, leeches have suckers on both ends of their body, but the front sucker is the weakest, so usually leeches attach with their posterior sucker. If a leech successfully feeds on your blood, you bleed for a long time, as I mentioned before, but the actual amount of blood lost is quite minimal, and doesn’t really cause any adverse health effects. You’re just being nice to the leech, in a way. And after a blood meal, the leech usually, “…retires to a dark spot, to digest its meal…” in the exact words of this formal scientific paper. Incredible.

In other wacky and dangerous organismal news, the Centre director’s husband Alastair caught another Scrub Python on the property’s access road. As a note, this is actually part of his job, he works for the government’s wildlife service. I honestly think that he’s one of the coolest people I’ve ever met, he’s seriously like Steve Irwin the Crocodile Hunter, except a few years older and much more humble and kind. He just runs around Queensland capturing snakes for a living. He’s sort of my hero. But anyways, he’s doing a research project tracking Scrub Pythons around the area, so after he caught this newest Python, we helped him measure it this afternoon. Turned out to be 10 feet long, weighed about 8 pounds, thicker than my fist. Huge snake. Holding the snake straight out for the length measurement, the snake was squirming in my grasp, and woah, I did not realize that they were so strong. Turns out they’re actually the world’s strongest vertebrate, in terms of muscle mass or something. Even the very tip of its tail could probably crush most people in arm wrestling, the muscles were that strong. So it was really cool to spend some time examining this massive snake up close and personal, and we released it later at the same spot it was captured at. We also saw a Small-eyed Snake this afternoon, one of the most dangerous snakes in this area. One of them bit a cabinmate of mine two weeks ago, but luckily he got bitten right on the sandal strap, and missed the foot. You could not get more lucky.

And that’s basically it, for these past few whirlwind days. Tomorrow the whole group is going to Cairns for a weekend break, with everyone heading to an Australian Football game tomorrow night, which I’m incredibly pumped about. Sunday, we have no idea what we’re doing. We were planning on kayaking on the Great Barrier Reef, but it looks like weather conditions will be too harsh, and that’ll get canceled. The girls wanted to go horseback riding, I think they wanted revenge for getting dragged to the football game, but that turned out to be too expensive. Four people just decided an hour ago that they want to go skydiving, which is sorely tempting, but it’s a bit too short notice. I want to pump myself up for a few weeks before I go skydiving, and believe me, I want to go skydiving at some point. But not two days from now. I’d rather find something much more peaceful and relaxing to do.

And also, after my program’s over, I’d been planning on spending ten days in Sydney, but after having a long conversation with Alastair the Crocodile Hunter, I’ve decided that I’m probably going to fly to Alice Springs to spend a few days. Alice Springs is in the center of the continent, right in the middle of the Outback, and that’s an environment that I desparately want to see before I leave here. Plus, the birding will hopefully be incredible. And I trust Alastair’s advice, actually I would trust him with my life. If we really had gone sea kayaking, and our kayaks had flipped, and sharks (or octopuses) were circling, I could totally see Alastair skydiving to our rescue, wrestling with the sharks (and octopuses), and saving everyone without breaking a sweat, and flying off to return to his job and find some more huge snakes. What a ridiculous country that I’m living in.

Leeches attached: ~70
Leeches that have feasted upon my blood: 3

Stepping Over the Edge

A lot of press has recently been given to the Zoological Society of London’s new initiative, EDGE of Existence, with the EDGE acronym standing for Evolutionarily Distinct & Globally Endangered. The group plans to raise awareness for species that are, as the title suggests, extremely unique and extremely rare, and therefore worthy of preservation. Researchers from the ZSL plan to implement research and conservation actions for these species by working alongside local scientists in each species’ range.

I think that’s a great plan, certainly much more assertive and practical than the usual fundraising group whose money sits in a safe in some small office somewhere, as the website gets updated with more photos of cute baby pandas. No conservation effort can really succeed without cooperation at the local level, which a lot of these kinds of groups seem to forget. I applaud the ZSL and the EDGE initiative for taking the time to realize this, hopefully they’ll be able to follow through with their proposals.

However, though the methodology seems correct, I have major issues with the focus of the group. On their page, they’ve listed their Top 100 Focus Species, along with some general info, and how intensive current conservation efforts are. The important thing to note is that all of these species are mammals. But why? Mammals are not any more evolutionarily distinct, endangered, or ecologically important as any other group of organisms, possibly even less so than others. The obvious answer is that mammals are cute and charismatic, and therefore will draw in a lot of money and attention.

In that sense, it’s practical, but I also think it’s sending the wrong message. What’s the purpose of saving endangered species? There’s a lot of aesthetic and moral reasons, but a lot of it also has to do with the potential ecological benefit of the species. Will an ecosystem be able to survive if this species is lost? If not, then it’s obviously in our interests to save it from extinction. Here, EDGE has decided to focus on unique and rare mammals, and as I alluded to earlier, I don’t think that’s a particularly important group to focus on.

For example, let’s look at Species #10, the Sumatran Rabbit. The thing hadn’t been seen since the 1930’s, and was presumed extinct until one was accidentally photographed in 1998. We still know almost nothing about the rabbit, only that it’s nocturnal and extremely shy, hence why it’s been so difficult to find.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’d be incredibly cool to save the Sumatran Rabbit. It looks pretty freaking awesome, and its behavior is probably quite fascinating. But I have to just say straight out that ecologically speaking, I really don’t think it’s an important species. It must be a rare species because it has extremely specialized habitat or dietary requirements which have been significantly altered in the past hundred years. If we lose the rabbit to extinction, what does the environment lose? A few plants may not get their seeds spread? A few predators may lose a handful of prey items? I feel like those are probably broad niches that will easily get taken up by a similar herbivore; I doubt that the Sumatran Rabbit was the sole prey item of some Indonesian hawk, for example. When a species is this rare and specialized, I really can’t see the whole thing unraveling upon its loss.

Of course, this is all conjecture. Nobody can really quantitatively state how Important a species is, and what the costs of extinction are. But saying that the Sumatran Rabbit is more worthy of preservation than something totally uncharismatic such as, say, mycorrizhae fungi would be a difficult argument to make. But hey, it’s a complicated subject, nobody really knows for sure what the importance of each species is. I’ll make some concessions then: like I said earlier, beginning with a focus on mammals is practical since it provides cute mascots to front the organization and draw in the public’s interest. Hopefully they’ll move on to other organismal groups from there. In addition, I suppose that some conservation is better than none, so I’d certainly support EDGE over no conservation support at all. Plus, they seem to have a sound plan. That being said, I would still argue that if funds are to be allocated for conservation, there are better causes to be found. The ecological usefulness of these unique and rare mammals is fairly questionable, whereas the usefulness of preserving entire habitats through an organization such as The Nature Conservancy seems much more useful to me personally. That’s just my opinion. So, props to EDGE for raising awareness on the issue and coming up with a sound gameplan, but I’d prefer to see a more ecologically sound list of target species before I throw all my support behind it.

By the way, up at the top of the post, that’s a Red Panda. I don’t usually think of things as ‘cute’ or ‘adorable’, but omgosh, I love Red Pandas. They’re so cute!!!!!!!! Okay, you can kill me now.

Some other things that have caught my attention recently:

Gave a listen to the new Bloc Party album, A Weekend in the City. I hated it. Hated it. One of the worst albums I have ever heard, and that is not a joke. I was feeling generous and give it one star on my RYM page, just because I usually reserve the half-star rating for albums that are so terrible that they actually made me angry (i.e. Fiery Furnaces), and A Weekend in the City was not that offensive. It was just really, really inoffensive, and in the worst way possible.

Bloc Party were never my favorite band, but I didn’t dislike them either. Their debut EP along with the Silent Alarm LP were filled with some really fun moments. Their brand of dance-rock was rooted in some angsty gut emotion, rich territory left un-mined by the totally mindless party fun of !!! or The Rapture. A Weekend in the City is a major stylistic change for the group, but they go in the totally wrong direction. Now, the dance-rock is left in the dust and the emotional drama becomes the band’s primary calling card, and though the band bleeds sincerity, they just don’t have the musical or poetic lyricism to pull it off effectively. Leadoff single ‘I Still Remember’ sounds like the most derivative and uninspired aspects of The Killers, Coldplay, or U2, and is now completely indistinguishable from hundreds of other Brit-rock bands. It’s time to dig this band’s grave, they’ve had their time in the critical spotlight, but that’s pretty much over now. Goodbye Bloc Party, the music scene is a vicious one and has a short-term memory, you just didn’t have what it takes to gain any staying power. I hope you enjoyed your time here while you could.

I saw a really pitiful number of new movies this year, so I tried to make amends by seeing two excellent movies last week, Children of Men, and Old Joy.

Children of Men is the new effort from director Alfonso Cuaron, previously known for his work on Y Tu Mama Tambien and, uh, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hah. Before we move on, I just wanted to state that Azkaban is far and away the best film in the series (though I haven’t taken the time to watch Goblet of Fire yet), and I don’t regret watching it four times in two days during that Nationals debate trip to Salt Lake City. Hah, okay, maybe I do regret it, but not as much as I regret skipping out on a Segway rental at that mall. Ed, wherever you are these days, curse you for talking us out of it. Though we were all bored out of our freaking skulls (I mean, it was Salt Lake City after all), that wasn’t a bad debate trip either, in hindsight.

Anyways, Children of Men takes place twenty years in the future, when the entire human race has suddenly become infertile for unknown reasons. The film isn’t too concerned with the question of ‘why’; a lot more of the focus lies on the ‘what if’ ramifications of such an event, and it’s pretty terrifying stuff. The world has fallen into chaos and anarchy, and the few remaining strongholds of civilization take increasingly desperate measures to control the population. I won’t say too much about the film, other than to state that it was consistently engrossing and brilliant, pretty much all the way through. Everything about the film worked: the writing, acting, production, pacing, and direction were all basically flawless, so all I can really say is that it was just an immaculately produced and substantive film, and I really couldn’t have asked for more. The only real chink in its armor was the ending, which everyone seems to be swarming around as its only weakness. I’m glad that it was left open-ended, but I’m very unhappy with the way Clive Owen’s character was dealt with, it seemed like such a cheap excuse for closure in that sense. But that’s a minor argument, for the most part the strengths of the film more than made up for any weaknesses, and Children of Men was the best film I saw in 2006.

While I was in Boston, I got a quick text message from Mr. Behrend asking if I was interested in seeing this film Old Joy at the Colony Theatre that night. I figured that I would probably be in no emotional shape to see a film at that time, and responded thusly. It was only later when I thought, wait, Old Joy? Why I have never heard of this movie before? Probably because Berardinelli hasn’t reviewed it, I realized, and since I agree with him on almost everything, and he hasn’t reviewed this, it can’t be good!

Then I did some quick research and realized that, wait, this might be the best movie ever. It got a lot of critical praise at Sundance, but more importantly, it stars Will Oldham, of all people? Yo La Tengo did the soundtrack? It has an 84 on Metacritic? The ingredients were in place for something special, so Mr. Behrend and I agreed to meet in a few days time to soak in the experience.

As I expected from the quick research on it, Old Joy is a very minimal and delibrately-paced film. Much of it is just composed of long shots of simple images: a sparrow perched on a branch, the lights of the city, trees zipping by the car window, clouds. All of this is used the frame the minimal story of two old friends going on a hike, and the ways the two have changed or stayed the same.

My main problem with Old Joy is that it’s subtle, but too obviously so. That probably doesn’t make any sense, so I’ll try and explain. Before and after their hike, one of the characters rides in his car listening to Air America Radio, and it’s really the only thing going on in the picture. It’s just long shots of a person driving, and the only sound is that of the political debate on the radio. That’s fine. The problem is that these radio dialogues are obviously connected with the primary themes of the film, and it’s not really made to be subtle. We’re supposed to notice. Every subtle detail in the film is supposed to carry Important Meanings, and I don’t have a problem with that, the problem is that the filmmakers make these Important Meanings obvious, and the images lose their subtlety, and start coming across as preachy and ham-fisted. The magic of the film is in its subtlety, yet paradoxically the filmmakers have chosen to magnify its images to the point where it’s no longer beautiful. Terrence Malick’s work is an example of subtlety just for the sake of the beauty of subtlety, and though there is a message to his work as well, he doesn’t force it upon the viewer.

I enjoyed Old Joy, there were some really beautiful and evocative moments, but it really wasn’t as Important as it probably perceives itself to be. I wouldn’t mind recommending it to people though, it really was quite a beautiful work. Plus, Will Oldham and Yo La Tengo still rock.

Meanwhile, I’m going to try and fit in a viewing of Pan’s Labyrinth sometime this week. It has a 98 on Metacritic?! That makes it the 4th highest-rated film…of all time. Yeah, I need to see this. Possible report to come later. But then I get into conversations like this:

11:24:12 AM Roger: i think i’m just going to suck it up and go see it at some early showing on a weekday, alone
11:24:35 AM Roger: pretty sure i would kill the person next to me in terror if i saw it with other people
11:28:17 AM Keith: two people i know went to go see it, and they pretty much told me they were holding each other in fear the whole time
11:28:23 AM Keith: and then were kind of depressed after

Hah, that doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun. Well, better than just passively slouching in the seat and glancing at the watch, right? Any moving experience is better than none, right? I’m sure that I’ll come out of Pan’s Labyrinth completely shaken to the core, but glad that I’d seen it. I need that kind of gut check sometimes. Or, I’m just masochistic. Hah. The Australian Stinging Trees are calling to me…


Okay, and the last thing I want to note is that I’ve made some changes to the design of the site. For one, I’ve added ‘Currently Listening’ and ‘Currently Reading’ to the sidebar for no real reason, other than to just indulge my tastes. The bigger change is that I’m going to stop posting links in these posts. Funny, because that was the one condition I set for myself when I started posting about non-birding material on this blog: I was going to post links, in order to provide some inter-post consistency. But more importantly, I wanted to ground the blog and keep it from veering off into emo diary land. I don’t feel like either goal has been successful or was even been necessary to begin with, so away it goes, it was clumsy to deal with anyways. In its place, I’m posting links onto my del.icio.us page, with the most recent bookmarks conveniently appearing in the sidebar to the right. The advantage here is that links will be constantly updating, so now if you’re totally bored you don’t have to rely on my procrastination-induced and/or slow-life post delays in order to waste time on the internet. I also figure that this will take less time and effort for me, which could be important once I get to Australia and have less of both on hand. We’ll see how it works out.

One more week at home! It’s probably time for me to tie up a lot of loose ends here, expect me to be pretty busy. We’ll talk later. Though I’m sure I’ll post about the conference championship games tomorrow, and possibly about Pan’s Labyrinth, or other things, we’ll see. Man, it’s weird to close a blog post without links now, I guess I’ll just stop here? Stop.

Lord God Bird

Rumors are circulating that tomorrow morning, Tuesday the 26th of September, scientists will announce the discovery of a(nother) colony of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the Florida panhandle. No photographic or video evidence was obtained, however audio recordings made on the site have been studied, and dozens of observations have also been made. The exact locations of these possible sightings will be kept secret until further surveys this winter have conclusively searched the area.

Again, this is just a rumor. There could be no announcement tomorrow morning, or a completely different announcement could be made. In either case, this may be a good time for me to revisit the case of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

When news spread on April 28 2005 that the Woodpecker had been rediscovered in the swamps of Arkansas, words could not express my emotions. I like to think that I’m a very stoic person, but I nearly broke down into tears several times during those days after the announcement. I watched the Luneau video on endless repeat on my computer screen, and choked up as the realization kept hitting me. This was an almost mythical bird, one that I’d spent countless hours reading about, but never expected to see alive, it was extinct, gone, wiped off the face of the earth. The possibility of me ever encountering one was absolutely zero. But the Arkansas findings presented an unbelievable new hope, and a sense of optimism that my usually cynical self simply could not refuse. I obtained copies of the Science article, all the accompanying figures, interviews with the observers, subsequent book releases on the subject, and basically anything else related to the find. And I watched the Luneau video constantly, whenever I was distracted from homework, I would watch the video. It was my connection to a mythical bird back from the dead.

In the coming weeks and months, I heard that David Sibley and other prominent birders would soon be publishing a rebuttal to the original findings, and despite the names involved, I refused to believe that such an amazing discovery could possibly be taken away. Once the rebuttal arrived however, along with the subsequent response to the rebuttal, my views began to change. Sibley et al brought up a number of intriguing points regarding the original analysis of the Luneau video. Later, Jerome Jackson published a rebuttal as well, and while his was unbelievably flawed and picked apart by other scientists, a few interesting points remained. The Cornell response to these rebuttals was also fairly accurate, and suddenly, it seemed to me that things were stuck in a stalemate. Both sides had presented very compelling evidence to back up their cases, and the fact was, there was simply not enough evidence to prove who was right.

I’m now of the opinion that without completely definitive photographic or videotaped footage of a live Ivory-billed Woodpecker, it would be foolish to jump to conclusions regarding its continued existence. In science, the general practice is to come up with a ‘null hypothesis’ representing the most likely explanation, with the burden of proof lying on the scientist to prove that in fact an entirely new explanation is necessary. In this case, the null hypothesis is that the Luneau video, and all the independent observations were not of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, but of some other bird, possibly a leucistic Pileated Woodpecker. As rare as an aberrant Pileated Woodpecker would be, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was widely regarded to be completely extinct, to be completely non-existent anywhere in this universe, and the probability of it living once more was simply astronomical. Both the Cornell team and the skeptics have provided good arguments as to the legitimacy of the Luneau video and observations, which leads me to believe that the Cornell team has not presented enough conclusive evidence to dismiss the null hypothesis. So until we get sufficient proof that the woodpecker lives, I will take the skeptic’s route. My heart wants me to believe, but my mind tells me to look at the evidence. And I never listen to my heart. My heart is incredibly stupid. That’s not to say that I have a brilliant mind, but rather, I have an incredibly stupid heart. Whenever I see an inspirational quote telling me to follow my heart and to follow my dreams, I really want to smash things. I freaking hate those. But we’re getting quite a ways off topic here.

I may have more to say regarding the Ivory-bill, depending on whether or not an announcement is truly made.

Links until the news arrives:

Edit: It’s now the morning of the 26th, and it looks like the rumors are true. A group from Auburn University has announced evidence of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the Florida Panhandle. A good summary of the new findings can be found in this newspaper clipping, with the actual paper to come later. For the latest news, the blog Ivory-bills Live is a good stream of information.

I’m very surprised that the group decided to reveal the exact locations of the findings, and I sincerely hope that groups don’t descend upon the area and disturb the habitat too much. In any case, reading the summarizing article, I’m a lot more excited than I expected to be. Obviously I’m not completely convinced yet, but it sounds like they’re very confident in their recordings. I’ll consider any potential reports to be good news, accurate or not, as it’s providing another lead into the search. The interview with Dr. Jackson, especially his title as an ‘Ivory-bill expert’ is a little laughable; I think Sibley is taking the best approach here, as a cautious scientist waiting to see the evidence.

Time will tell if this is the true rediscovery that the world has been waiting for, and it would certainly be nice to think that it is. For now, I anxiously await the formal paper, and any further evidence that may be collected in the subsequent searches. I wish the Auburn group the best of luck.

Another edit: The paper has now been posted. I really like this paper a lot more than the Arkansas paper. They rule out many of the common explanations for the ‘kent’ calls, and explain some of the variation in their recorded double-knocks via comparison with existing recordings of another Campephilus woodpecker, the Pale-billed Woodpecker of Central America. I’m still not convinced by the cavity size argument, and the bark detachment data seems like a tenuous connection to me. However, I’m quite excited by the audio evidence, and I’m curious to see what the general response to this paper is.

Also, with regards to the revealing of the location, I suppose it was necessary to add to the paper’s credibility, otherwise the paper could likely have been rejected by any reputable journal. Hopefully this won’t backfire like the Pearl River search, fortunately my understanding is that this site is quite remote, so that may be a moot point. I need to check out Google Earth.

One drawback of the Arkansas paper was that it relied too much on the video evidence, and did not speak enough of the individual observations. I would not disagree with the decision to do this, as field observations can be notoriously inconsistent and inaccurate, but with the skeptical analysis of the Luneau video, the paper had nothing left to stand with. The supplementary observational records provided with this Florida paper really helps to seal the deal, almost. Again, I await the arrival of further evidence, and the general response of the communities involved.


Isn’t it unbelievable that plants can convert carbon dioxide, a gas, into solid leaves, branches, and roots, just with the help of sunlight? Gas -> solid by sunlight? I’m just stunned that such a beautifully complex system could have possibly evolved/been created/whatever. Spend a moment thinking about it.

Also, I have more to say regarding the new Joanna Newsom album. With every pluck of her harp strings, it feels as if she’s plucking my heart strings. O Ys.

Actually I don’t find her attractive in the slightest, but this album…this album…