Tag Archives: science

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

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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.

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.