Lab Updates August 2016

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It’s been another month of change here at Team MacroBird with two of our original team members moving on to adventures anew.

14100385_10104845417626067_3774523421000460044_nPost-doc Jen Bright (green t-shirt, thumbs up), geometric morphometrics whizz and all-round human-encyclopedia, is taking up a new post as Assistant Professor of Geosciences at the University of South Florida.

Research assistant Elliot Capp (cheesy grin, beard), mechscan master, brains behind #beakoftheweek and all round zoology ace is off to become a teacher extraordinaire.

To mark these departures, all of us on team MacroBird went on a trip to South Kensington to see the new Colour and Vision exhibition at the Natural History Museum. We saw the octopus Charles Darwin kept as a pet during the voyage of HMS Beagle, lots of very cool trilobites, some impressive iridescent butterflies, plenty of birds (Gouldian finches galore) and learnt that ‘cyborg artist’ is someone’s actual job title.

Colour & Vision

Data Collection in Tring: 3D scanning

With all this change on the horizon, we’ve been pushing to meet as many data collection targets as possible. This involves progressing through remaining large families and returning to those we moved on from whilst nearing completion.

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3D Scan of Mauritius Kestrel (Falco punctatus) from www.markmybird.org

One such example is the birds of prey which are, in general, great to scan. Although some genera have obstructing feathers and bristles, most have clear landmarks and well-defined ‘cutting edges’ that are clearly picked up by our scanners. One of the last non-passerine families in need of completing were the Falcons and Caracaras (Falconidae) – with all the larger species having already been imaged on the bigger of our two scanners (the R3X) we still had a number of significantly smaller, finer bills remaining. After what feels like months of Hummingbirds (Trochilidae) and Sunbirds (Nectariniidae), finishing a family with such chunky, nonlinear bills was a breeze!

On the other end of the scale, we had some really big species that needed our attention. Both the Rheas (Rheidae) and the Cassowaries (Casuariidae), two of the tallest and heaviest living birds, are primarily stored as either mounted taxidermy or in a compact, curled-up form within the collections due to their size and shape. Selecting a specimen suitable for scanning can be a real challenge as we need to access the bill from all angles in order to capture enough images to build a 3D model. Rather than simply rotating the specimen (as we do with small passerines for example) we have to get a bit creative and move the scanner around these huge specimens, carefully manoeuvring the long, brittle necks to ensure no damage is caused. In moments like this, such as scanning the last of the cassowaries (below), we realise just how peculiar parts of our job are…

cassowary

Data Collection in Tring: UV photography

This month we’ve been photographing the plumage of some really interesting species- with the Pittas (Pittidae) being a particular favourite.

The Pittas are a small family of charismatic birds found across Asia, Africa and Australasia. They are small-medium in size and stocky in form with very short tails and comparatively long legs. What really sets them apart from other species is their brightly coloured plumage (particularly interesting for this element of our research), in vivid shades of red, blue and purple. In the wild, Pittas are notoriously difficult to pinpoint as they are highly secretive and perhaps because of this, they often feature on lists of species birders particularly want to see (including one or two members of our team!). 

Being able to access these species within museum collections allows us to use an ultraviolet filter when photographing the specimens, which provides us with a different perspective of this fantastic plumage. Certain patches of colour positively glow- as you can see from our images of the Azure-breasted Pitta (Pitta steerii) below. 

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MarkMyBird and #BeakoftheWeek

We’ve recently been experiencing some technical problems with our crowd sourcing website markmybird– thank you to everyone for being so patient and for keeping us updated. Everything is now up-and-running again and we’ve uploaded more than a thousand new 3D bill models for you to view and landmark, even more reason to revisit or sign up and give citizen science a try!

black-winged stilt

Our weekly twitter competition #BeakoftheWeek has seen some great picks this month, including a number of first-time guessers and winners. Chris Packham was successful in spotting the black-winged stilt (above) in record time, followed by the hen harrier in his honour. There are still thousands of species to pick from so the competition is far from over, join us on twitter every Wednesday and give it a go.

Images

All images (c) of Team Macrobird and The Natural History Museum