Lab Updates July 2016

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HummingbirdsTime is flying on all sides of project MacroBird. We have some big changes on the horizon in coming months with scanning targets to meet, team members moving on and tweaks to some of our data collection processes.

This month we were joined by a second undergraduate from the Department of Plant and Animal Sciences at Sheffield. After being awarded a SURE (Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience) grant, Louie Rombaut spent a fortnight with us at the Natural History Museum, shadowing our work and making use of the fantastic ornithology library collections. He will be using our scans to investigate hummingbird feeding behaviour for his summer project- it’s great to see the data being put to use already!

Data Collection in Tring: 3D scanning and UV photography

Hummingbirds have featured heavily in our lab updates for the last couple of months and July is no different. These long, sometimes curved and often extremely fine bills have really put our scanning equipment and skills to the test! As such an interesting family however, they are one of our priorities so we have continued to work through the huge number of species, alongside the equally varied and challenging tyrant flycatchers.

One of the things we don’t often talk about on this blog are the practicalities of working with museum specimens. For the scanning and photography sides of the project, we are using the birds in quite different ways- focussing on different aspects that require very different approaches for data collection.

Whilst the bill scanning uses only one specimen and is a steady, time-consuming process with the birds virtually static, the photography method requires us to sample up to six specimens of every species, rotating the birds to capture all angles of their plumage. Varying vastly in condition, size and preparation method, the research skins need to be handled securely and with care so having the right equipment to allow us to do this is really important.

Scanning

As you might expect, there isn’t a big market for this kind of product so there is a good amount of experimentation, testing and DIY involved. This month we have been working on a new ‘stand’ to support a wider variety of specimen sizes for photography and will begin putting it to the test next month.

MarkMyBird and #BeakoftheWeek

This scanning focus does mean there is now a wide variety of Trochilidae scans ready for landmarking on our crowdsourcing site MarkMyBird so, if you’re interested in seeing the variety of bill form within this fascinating family, head on over. You can always have a browse through our gallery to look at some interesting species or get a feel for the 3D models we are generating, it might just inspire you to sign-up and contribute to this vast study.

Frilled coquetteLophornis magnificus)

Frilled coquette (Lophornis magnificus)

There have been some great picks of species on #BeakoftheWeek lately, including this weeks challenge- the Apostlebird. You can read more about these mudnesters in our most recent blog post here.

We’ve also written about a #Beakoftheweek pick from a few weeks back- the reedhaunters– a pair of species first collected by Charles Darwin aboard HMS Beagle with a fascinating taxonomic and historical background, just a click away on our team blog.

John Gould's original illustrations of the Reedhaunters, with Limnoctites rectirostris thought to have been painted directly from the type specimen

John Gould’s original illustrations of the Reedhaunters

 

Images
– The Chilean Woodstars (Eulidia yarrellii), from ‘A monograph of the Trochilidæ, or family of humming-birds’ by John Gould. Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library: http://dx.doi.org/10.5962/bhl.title.51056
– Photograph of a bird being scanned and 3D scan of the frilled coquette, copyright Natural History Museum, London and Tring.
– John Gould’s illustrations of the Reedhaunters (Limnoctites rectirostris and Limnornis curvirostris) from The zoology of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library: http://dx.doi.org/10.5962/bhl.title.14216

The Apostlebird (Struthidea cinerea)

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I couldn’t wait to write a blog about this species, so I have waded straight into it before the dust has even settled from another round of #BeakoftheWeek.

I had the pleasure of working at a research station (Fowlers Gap) in New South Wales a few years ago where there was a group of habituated apostlebirds, which was a fantastic experience. All you had to do was give a whistle and they would fly over and gather around you in the search of tasty treats. This allowed me to get some great photos like the one below.

Apostlebird1

Apostlebird PC Elliot Capp @ornithzoologist

This social, cooperatively breeding passerine species is an Australian mudnester (Corcoracidae) and is one of many species that had the pleasure of first being described by British Ornithologist John Gould (in 1837). Yup, that is the man who pointed out to Charles Darwin that there was something special about those birds he had brought back from the Galapagos. The 12 seminal ground finch species. This subject could cause me to massively go off on a tangent as I am sometimes wanton to do, but I will stick to the apostlebirds this time.

Apostlebirds are the only member of their genus and one of only two species in the Corcoracidae family, along with the white-winged chough (Corcorax melanorhamphos). If you head over to Onezoom you can see what other species they are closely related to.

  • Apostlebirds are around 30cm in length and largely grey in colour (hence Cinerea, which means grey in latin) except for their brown wings and long black tail which has a greeny gloss in certain light. Sexes are similar in appearance, as are juveniles except that they appear to have slightly softer feathers on the head and body.  They have a black bill and legs.

    Investigative Apostlebird

    Investigative Apostlebird

    Apostlebirds are very vocal, with harsh, gritty calls. Xeno Canto, provider of an unparalleled range of bird calls and songs has once again allowed me to share with you the distinctive sounds these birds make.

  • Where can you find this species?

    Apostlebirds are endemic to Australia, across most of inland Eastern Australia with an isolated population in the Northern Territory. They prefer open habitats, and are typically found in arid and semi-arid woodlands/shrublands.  They can become quite bold and tame around places like campsites and farms, so you might be able to get a better view of them there, if you happen to be in Australia that is…

     

    Apostlebird Range

    Apostlebird Range

  • Breeding

    As I mentioned earlier on in this article, this species breeds cooperatively. This means that the breeding effort in this species is shared amongst members of the group, helping to take some of the burden off of the breeding pair. Members of the group help by assisting with tasks like nest building, egg incubation and nest defence.  The number of helpers in a group can be as high as 17.

    It is in fact the group-living nature of these birds that gave rise to their name.  They are often seen in groups of 12, much like Jesus’s Apostles. Although this species has a whole host of other names, such as the “Cwa-bird” and the “lazy-jack”. Apostlebirds also charmingly called “grey jumpers”, a name derived from their habit of jumping from branch to branch.

    As an aside, this species forms a fission-fusion society with these “breeding units” coming together with other breeding groups in winter to former larger groups, before then breaking off again when breeding season comes around.

    You scratch my back, i'll scratch yours.

    You scratch my back, i’ll scratch yours. PC Elliot Capp @ornithzoologist

    Breeding generally occurs between August and February, with exceptions occurring at other times of the year in drier areas where breeding can commence following rain.

    The mud nest, which all group members take part in building, is typically around 7m (range = 3-12m) from the ground in the horizontal branch of a tree. Nests are commonly built in Eucalyptus , Cassuarina and Acacia trees, and are constructed using dried mud, twigs and grass.

    Typically 3-5 eggs are laid, with the breeding female undertaking most of the incubating (19-20 days), although all group members help somewhat. The whole group then takes responsibility for meeting the nutritional requirements of the nestlings (18-20 days) and subsequently the fledglings for up to 10 weeks. Offspring form a major part of breeding groups and often stay in their natal groups for many years.

    Diet

    You’ll see these birds foraging on the ground looking for seeds and insects, although they have been known to steal eggs from other species’ nests and eat small mammals. They have been seen to kill mice by thumping them into the ground before eating them, what a delightful way to go.

  • How is this species faring?

    This species is not considered to be under threat according to the IUCN redlist but is seeing population declines in some areas due to drought, fire and clearance for agriculture leading to habitat loss.

  • The Biodiversity Heritage Library

    I don’t think we have given a shout out to the Biodiversity Heritage Library as of yet, so this is as good an opportunity as any.  It is a fantastic resource that has digitised a large amount of biodiversity literature, such as the Birds of Australia.  It has been created by a consortium of natural history and botanical libraries, such as the Natural History Museum (London) and Smithsonian Libraries, with the aim of digitising biodiversity literature in their collections and making them available to all (open access).

    This project gives members of the public access to reading material that they would most likely never get the chance to see otherwise, unless they had a wealth of time on their hands and the ability to travel the world on some carefree reading adventure.

    Here is the Birds of Australia for you perusal.

References

BirdLife International. 2012. Struthidea cinerea. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2012: e.T22705385A38386489. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2012-1.RLTS.T22705385A38386489.en. Downloaded on 29 July 2016.

Rowley, I. & Russell, E. (2016). Apostlebird (Struthidea cinerea). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from http://www.hbw.com/node/60602 on 28 July 2016).

Photos and Videos

BirdLife International and NatureServe (2014) Bird Species Distribution Maps of the World. 2012. Struthidea cinerea. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2016-1 – range

Investigative Apostlebird by Benjamint444 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Audio

Marc Anderson, XC171837. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/171837.

A tale of two bills: the reedhaunters

facebooktwitterReedhaunters 2Our research is reliant upon the Natural History Museum’s ornithological collections- comprising thousands of specimens, amassed over centuries from across the globe, preserved, recorded and studied. The scale and scope of our project means we come into contact with a huge array of this material every day, working across taxa to select individual specimens that act as representatives of a species for our dataset. We handle them, assess their condition, transcribe and photograph their label data, create 3D images of their bills and return them to their place amongst the taxonomically arranged cabinets. This is typical of the way wide-ranging scientific research utilises natural history collections- as ordered snapshots of biological data- but this is only one way of viewing and using them.

Having previously worked on the collections from a historical perspective, where focus more often lies on the individual artefact, studied and prized for its own story, it has been an interesting shift to consider these alternative approaches to collections. There are still occasions, however, when the habit of checking specimen labels, not just for sex and locality data, but also for handwriting, collector’s names and annotations can highlight the biography of a specimen and the species it represents. The reedhaunters, comprising only two species, are a prime example of this.

The specimen of straight-billed reedhaunter (Limnoctites rectirostris) we selected for scanning and landmarking is identified as a type- the specimen from which a species was formally described. The Natural History Museum is keeper of the largest number of ornithological types in the world, stored securely from the main series, and often harbouring their own intriguing stories alongside their immense scientific value.

The labels on this particular specimen revealed that the bird had been collected by none other than Charles Darwin  (1809-1882) during the second voyage of HMS Beagle before being sent to London via the great ornithologist and scientific artist John Gould (1804-1881). It remained one of the only such specimens known to science for a further century. Furthermore, Gould used this specimen in his illustrations for the Zoology of the voyage, a publication that immortalised the collecting activity on the infamous expedition:

John Gould's original illustrations of the Reedhaunters, with Limnoctites rectirostris thought to have been painted directly from the type specimen

John Gould’s original illustrations of the Reedhaunters, with Limnoctites rectirostris thought to have been painted directly from the type specimen

The reedhaunters are marsh-dwelling ovenbirds that were first collected by Darwin whilst in Uruguay in the 1830s. As with many of his ornithological specimens, Darwin sent the prepared skins back to London where John Gould set about studying and identifying them. In so doing, Gould created the new genus Limnornis for the two species, and (particularly interesting for our study) named them individually according to their bill differences, the straight-billed reedhaunter (Limnornis rectirostris) and the curve-billed reedhaunter (Limnornis curvirostris).

Our scans of the curve- and straight- billed reedhaunters, with the former taken from Darwin's actual 19th century specimen

Our scans of the curve-billed and straight- billed reedhaunters, with the latter generated from Darwin’s actual 19th century specimen

Since Gould’s original identification of these species and despite Darwin himself saying he was unable to notice any behavioural differences between the species, they have undergone a number of taxonomic revisions. Increased understanding of differences between the two has seen them widely placed in separate monotypic genera (Limnornis and Limnoctites) but they have still widely been regarded as each other’s closest relative.

Building on this, contemporary research has highlighted that beyond broadly similar plumage, there are more significant differences between these species than their historical treatment would have us believe. With significantly different tail structure, nest building behaviour and egg colouration (L. curvirostris lays greenish-blue eggs, unusual within Furnariidae), additional studies considering distribution and molecular systematics have built a case for their long-held taxonomic relationship to be reconsidered. You can read one such paper in full here.

The whole process of working with historical specimens requires learning from the physical artefact, building on our existing knowledge by combining new methods and insights with this long-ago collected material. So when you log on to MarkMyBird and begin landmarking a bill, spare a thought for where the original specimen came from, at what time, whose hands it has passed through or, indeed, what new light may be shed on its relationships with other species as a result of modern scientific studies.