Thursday, January 17, 2013

Off to Brazil

I'm off to Brazil for three weeks to band shorebirds.  I'll post photos and stories when I return.

Take care, and happy birding –


Monday, January 7, 2013

What’s Next for Academic Ornithology?

Want to know how studying microorganisms relates to studying adaptive radiation, and evolution in selected traits like color and morphology in birds like this White-winged Crossbill?  Sexual selection is well studied in a host of bird species, but the genetics of sexual selection have yet to be worked out.  Gavin Leighton has brought us yet another great piece on where ornithology may be headed in the near future.  Read on and keep an open mind (White-winged Crossbill, Provincetown, MA, December 2012).
By Gavin M. Leighton

There’s no hiding it anymore: the major academic ornithological societies, e.g. The American Ornithological Union, The Wilson Ornithological Society, The Cooper Ornithological Society, and smaller raptor groups, are facing declining membership numbers and reduced revenues.  These groups are currently in the midst of talks about forming a singular society so as to pool resources and reduce inefficiencies due to overlapping functions.  Importantly, the decline in the groups also reflects a similar, though less drastic, proportion of research biologists performing research on natural populations.  While species such as the Darwin’s Finches continue to receive much press, the fields of evolutionary biology and behavioral ecology have diversified into new groups. 

This diversification is welcome; we can test overarching biological principles in more species and some of the new work is done on species that are amenable to controlled studies in labs.  Therefore, the appropriate response of academic ornithologists is not to resent the burgeoning work on species such as Dictyostelium discoideum; rather, academic ornithologists should turn their attention to the genetic and mutational techniques that have been developed in the microbial and agricultural worlds.  The DNA sequencing technology now available to researchers is staggering; we can sequence billions of base pairs of DNA in less than a few days.  Other groups of researchers have used this data to characterize soil meta-communities, identify mutations in agricultural crops, and delimit the mutations associated with coat color in some mouse species. 
ABI Prism 3100 Genetic Analyzer – we have the technology... (Photo from Wikipedia)
Not only are these techniques providing truck-loads of data, they are also being refined by the researchers performing the techniques.  The researchers have worked out most of the kinks associated with common next-generation sequencing technology thus delivering to ornithological researchers a massive opportunity that should not, and can not, be wasted.  The reasons that first attracted researchers to studying birds are the same reasons that should be used to create a mini-rebirth in academic ornithology. 

For instance, the biological community has gravitated towards studying sexual selection in birds because of the wealth of color traits and behavioral traits that are supposedly due to sexual selection.  As referenced before, Darwin’s finches are a classic example of species radiation (as an aside, Darwin didn’t even realize the finches were all finches until he had an ornithologist friend examine the specimens), and a considerable number of bird species are studied because of their cooperative breeding behaviors. 

Until recently, serious genetic studies could only be conducted on “model” species that were both reared in labs and also had their genome sequenced and published.  Now, a host of enzymatic digestion and sequencing allow researchers to discover large swaths of the genome at a time.  And in some cases, these DNA sequences can be mapped onto the genome of a closely related species; for example, individuals working on Darwin’s finches could map sequences onto the genome of the zebra finch.

What does all this mean? First, we can begin to understand the genetic architecture that underlies the variety of bird colors we see.  We would be able to compare tanagers and Northern Cardinals to see if selection produced red feather color along similar molecular pathways.  We will be able to delimit the genes that underlie behaviors like cooperative breeding, whereby some individuals give up the opportunity to breed elsewhere and instead help raise their siblings or half-sibs. 
Is red feather pigment selected for along the same or similar molecular pathways in all species?  Is bill morphology in Red Crossbill types selected for along similar pathways as bill morphologies in Darwin's finches?  (Red Crossbill, Provincetown, MA, December 2012)
Once we define these genes that are correlated with certain morphological or behavioral traits, it won’t be long before researchers can insert mutations or new forms of a gene into wild individuals using vectors such as viruses.  Field experimentation/validation is considered the holy grail of field biologists, and in the near future ornithologists will be able to perform the studies that conclusively show that certain genes are responsible for certain traits.  Once we understand which genes control which traits, we can follow those genes over time and track evolution in real time in animal species. 

In total, the depth and breadth of our understanding of the natural world will grow exponentially.  The only necessary step is for ornithologists to catch-up with the technology that is coming online.  Regrettably, many ornithologists are only familiar with the new techniques, but hesitant to dive into the new world of next-generation sequencing.  This is disconcerting as the potential data that could be collected and analyzed on bird species would firmly entrench ornithology as a relevant and exciting field of biology.  Indeed, there is no reason why the bird traits that have drawn both researchers and the public to birds in the past, can’t be studied and understood using the new technology we have now.  Importantly, if academic ornithologists do take advantage of the opportunities presented by new sequencing technology, then we could reverse declining membership in bird societies and potentially engender a new renaissance in birding.

Gavin is a PhD candiate at the University of Miami studying cooperative behavior in Sociable Weavers.  To learn more about Gavin, see our Guest Writers page.

We at BoomCha are excited and hopeful to hear from you.  Please comment on this post with your thoughts, concerns, and opinions on Gavin's piece.