On a quiet Friday afternoon in early April, 15 people packed into the Academy’s Serengeti diorama for a party. It wasn’t an ordinary celebration ornamented with twinkle lights, gowns and cocktails. In fact, the attire was casual, and a slightly musty aroma lingered in the air. But there were feathers, and lots of them, imported from across the world.
The event was a Brazilian birds unveiling party, the first of its kind at the Academy. Ornithologists Jason Weckstein and Nate Rice had brought back the first cache of birds from the country to be added to the Academy’s Ornithology Collection since the 1920s. The scientists and their colleagues collected and preserved the birds, along with thousands of tissue and parasite samples, during three collaborative expeditions to the region.
Weckstein and Rice were more than eager to show off their finds. They had not glimpsed the birds since the team collected the specimens in the field and processed and preserved them for transport to the Museu Goeldi in Belém, Brazil, and the Academy. For more than a year since collection, the bird specimens had remained in storage alongside the world’s largest collection of Amazonian birds at the Museu Goeldi. Now the onlookers, including fellow scientists and Academy supporters, were jostling for an initial look at the Academy’s share of these beautiful specimens. The researchers had a captive audience, and they began their narrative.
In November 2015 and the summers of 2016 and 2017, researchers from the Museu Goeldi, Universidade do Pará, the University of North Dakota, The Field Museum and the Academy traveled to the world’s largest lowland tropical forest wilderness to survey birds and their parasites. One of their goals was to analyze genetic data for the birds and their parasites and to reconstruct their evolutionary histories. They visited several remote locations, all sites where no one has collected and analyzed birds and their parasites in modern times.
Some of these locations are so isolated that the birds that live within them cannot leave, which makes these areas ideal for studying the evolution of species over time. Surrounded by rivers on all sides, the birds spend most of their lives in the forest understory. Their wings do not allow them to travel long distances or cross open water to breed outside their region. These geographic barriers create areas of endemism, in which certain regions (often surrounded by water) harbor species that are found nowhere else in the world.
Of course, to find birds that, due to their geography, cannot leave an area, the researchers had to travel far off the beaten path. On one particular trip, Weckstein, Rice and colleagues took two flights to reach Porto Velho, Rondoñia, Brazil. They then used four-wheel drive trucks and high-clearance vehicles to travel an unpaved section of the Trans-Amazonian Highway, which culminates at the town of Lábrea. Deeply rutted and tacky with mud, the treacherous 120-mile stretch of road took nearly a day to navigate.
The crew set up camp in a wooden cabin on the forest edge 10 miles outside Lábrea, alongside a small tributary of the Rio Purús. During their two week stay, they collected bird study skins, tissue samples and parasites from nearly 400 birds. They took notes on the prevalence and intensity of parasite infections, documenting how many hosts carried the parasites and the degree to which these hosts were infected. They closely documented where the birds were found, their physical characteristics, what was in their stomachs and other important data.
Their diligence paid off when they uncovered species new to the Academy’s extremely comprehensive Ornithology Collection and new material for the Museu Goeldi’s extensive collection as well. The specimens they collected will serve many purposes today and in the future, including providing data for a number of collaborative projects with their Brazilian colleagues on the diversity of malarial parasites across the world. Specimens collected from the project are now housed in both the Museu Goeldi’s and Academy’s collections.
Former Academy post-doctoral researcher Alan Fecchio, now at Universidade Federal do Mato Grosso in Cuiaba, Brazil, Academy postdoctoral researcher Spencer Galen and Weckstein are conducting one such study of malarial parasites in birds. Co-operative education students from Drexel University are staining blood films for microscopy and extracting DNA from the samples collected in Brazil. Brazilian graduate students working in the Academy’s Ornithology Department and Laboratory of Molecular Systematics and Ecology are using these specimens for their dissertation projects.
The researchers hope to gain a better understanding of the basic principles of how pathogens and parasites are transmitted and evolve. After all, the more we know about parasites and their relationships with their hosts, the better prepared we will be to understand how parasite diversity is generated and maintained. We may gain insights on how diseases and parasites travel between birds and even between wildlife and humans.
By Mary Alice Hartsock