Into the Trees

By Katie Clark

A few times a year, scientists from the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University venture to remote regions of the planet on some of the most important field trips in the name of science: collecting expeditions. The material they bring back has the potential to open new lines of research and answer limitless questions about life on Earth.

Nate Rice and Jason Weckstein of the Academy’s Ornithology Department collected bird specimens in Mexico. The specimens will benefit a slew of projects now and 100 years from now, scientists say.

No institution in the Americas has as rich a history of international field collecting in ornithology as the Academy. For over two centuries, the Academy has sent ornithologists to vanishing wild places to survey and sample local bird populations.

Recently, Academy scientists Jason Weckstein and Nate Rice, the assistant curator and collection manager of the Academy’s Ornithology Collection, respectively, traveled to Parque Ejidal San Nicolás de Totolapan, a protected reserve about 20 miles southwest of Mexico City in Mexico. There were many reasons this location was selected for a collecting expedition, but one in particular demanded attention—it was time.

The golden-crowned kinglet, Regulus satrapa, is a species that can be found outside the Academy’s doors in Philadelphia. Weckstein plans to compare this subspecies collected in Mexico with its counterparts in North America that are in the Academy’s collection.

“Most of our collection from Mexico was collected around World War II or earlier,” says Rice. “Our collection is really strong in New World holdings (North and South America), but in that, our weakest points are what we call Mesoamerica, which is Mexico and Central America. Mexico is a great place for us to add material that’s new for the collection or add to series that haven’t been added to in decades or even a century.”

The pair worked with long-time collaborators from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) for a 10-day trip along the thick forest terrain of the park. At roughly 3,000 meters above sea level, the air was thin, the nights cold and the mornings foggy, but it was all worth it for the “gold mine” of material brought home to the Academy.

Weckstein and Rice brought back specimens of a russet nightingale-thrush, Catharus occidentalis, which will be used to study the genus Catharus.

The team has several projects in progress already with the Mexico specimens. Rice has been filling in gaps in the Academy’s Ornithology Collection, which consists of study skins and tissue samples (and one of the world’s best collections of avian parasites, since Weckstein’s arrival in 2015). Weckstein plans to study the hippoboscid flies collected from bird specimens in the field to learn more about which birds the insects are feeding on. He is also conducting malarial screening on the tissue and blood samples from the trip.

And for the specimens that may not be of immediate scientific use, each day that passes makes them more historically valuable to the scientists who will surely come looking 100 years from now.

This post originally appeared in EXEL, Drexel University’s research magazine.