Lab Updates: March/April 2017

facebooktwitter
The last couple of months have flown by with lots of goings on amongst all of us here on team MacroBird.

Data Collection

Throughout March, we were joined by two postgraduate students from the department of Animal and Plant Sciences, both undertaking projects utilising the data we are collecting from museum specimens.
As part of their research projects, both Jade and Sarah spent a few weeks with us at the Natural History Museum in Tring.

JadeJade’s project is looking at plumage diversity across parrots (the family Psittacidae)- one of the largest groups in our taxonomy. The photography side of our project has been initially focussing on the passerines, so this was also our first attempt at imaging birds outside this group using our current setup. Whilst the majority of passerines fit within our small photography calibration (with some obvious exceptions- the immense tail feathers of some birds of paradise, for example), the Psittacidae encompass a huge variety in size. From the tiny hanging parrots, measuring only a few centimeters in length to the huge scarlet macaw, only just fitting within the limits of our light tent. Working our way through the family also highlighted the extraordinary spectrum to be seen within its plumage- from bright, vivid primary colours, to pastel gradients and dark ombres… just amazing.

parrots

Photographing the Psittacidae also raised a couple of interesting issues we haven’t really had to consider before. As many species of parrots have made popular pets, a fairly significant proportion of the specimens within the museum’s collections were either bred or lived in captivity. As diet can be a factor in plumage colouration, birds kept in captivity may develop colour abnormalities that could produce erroneous results if included in our dataset.parrot As such, we have had to be extra careful in interpreting the information provided on specimen labels to try and ensure only wild specimens are included in our study.

For much the same reason as their proliferation in captivity, a number of species are now classed as endangered (extinct species are not currently being included in our study), including the wonderful kakapo, but can still be included in our research thanks to the museum’s distinct E&E collection. It’s a huge privilege to work with such rare material and whilst our attitudes to collecting today have, thankfully, evolved and are now held to modern ethical standards and legislation, it does bring home the importance of preserving these existing historical collections for future research.

Furnarius rufus

Our scan of a Rufous hornero bill alongside an example of nest built by ovenbirds of this genus. Photograph by Darios Anches, CC BY-SA 2.0

SarahSarah’s work, concerned with the scanning side of our project, will be focusing on the ovenbirds (Furnariidae), a large family of primarily South American passerines, widely known for their incredible nest-building skills. Despite approaching 90% of world bird species processed for the bill component of our study, the ovenbirds have remained one of the least represented taxa in our dataset as a result of re-curation. Sarah’s project gave us the opportunity to correct this, with us successfully having now scanned every available species from the NHM’s collections. With a renewed push on scanning, this has seen a new batch of 3D scans available for landmarking on our crowdsourcing site markmybird.org for citizen scientists (old and new!) to landmark for inclusion within our study.

Alongside these individual projects, our usual data-collection has been continuing at pace. With two set-ups, able to process a wider variety of specimen sizes, we have been steadily working our way through all possible passerine families. Ranging from birds of paradise to weavers, parrotbills to waxbills over the last few weeks alone, our completion percentage has seen a real jump to:

22,047 specimens photographed: we are selecting up to 6 specimens of each species, both male and female
132,480 photos taken: six photographs- dorsal, ventral and lateral in both UV and human visible spectrums- of every selected specimen (with a few additional ones for extra large birds)
Approaching 46% of world bird species

Mark My Bird & Beak of the Week

The number of citizen scientists now subscribed to our citizen science site is around the 1700 mark and we are slowly nearing our targets. Alongside our usual day-to-day landmarking and weekly twitter competition #beakoftheweek, we also held a markmybird-athon, linking with students from the University of South Florida, where Dr Jen Bright- one of our original postdocs- is now based, for an evening of landmarking. It’s great to see how our data and website are being used to assist in teaching, engaging with science or any number of other uses people can think of.

A large portion of our data is now available in full via the Natural History Museum’s data portal, with lots more of scans available via our own website– we hope this resource will be used by others for a range of uses and to assist in answering lots of questions beyond our current study. If you’ve used our data, we’d love to hear about it!

Other News

3D printed bills

In other goings on, our group took part in the University of Sheffield’s annual Discovery Night- a brilliant opportunity to present our project to future generations of researchers. We had a great time talking about macroevolution, the values of natural history collections, the joys of 3D printing and the importance of citizen science for wide-ranging projects such as ours.

You can learn more about the event and our offering in a recent blog post, here.

 

Lastly for this month, team PhD students Angela Chira and Emma Hughes both presented posters discussing their projects and findings to-date- congratulations all round!

Angela & Emma

 

 

Discovery Night 2017

facebooktwitter 

discoverynightMarch saw the return of the University of Sheffield’s annual Festival of Science and Engineering. For the fifth year running this included Discovery Night, a family outreach evening demonstrating current research within the departments of science, engineering and medicine through demonstrations, talks and hands-on activities. Our research group is usually based in two places- the university and the Natural History Museum in Tring- so this seemed like a perfect opportunity to bring ourselves and the various sides of our project together to take part in the department of Animal and Plant Sciences’ (APS) offerings.

Despite the publication of our first wide-ranging paper earlier this year, we are not yet finished with data collection. Our aim, to 3D scan the bill and photograph the plumage of as many of the world’s approx. 10,000 species of bird, is a huge undertaking so communicating the scale and scope of this work seemed an interesting approach to take  when sharing our research.

birdspecimensWhilst we aren’t able to remove the irreplaceable specimens we use everyday from museum collections, we are lucky enough to have a small selection of data-less bird skins for testing our methods and for outreach. Museum’s will generally only keep natural history specimens within their research collections if they are adequately labelled with associated information (such as taxonomy, locality, who collected it and when) that makes them useful for research and/or identifiable as historically significant. As such, material will occasionally be deemed unsuitable for these needs but ideal for alternative uses, such as inclusion within handling collections- where material is  set aside to be used in teaching activities.

studyskins2Museum collections are absolutely essential in our work and form an incredible archive for research, interest and education so it was only fitting they took pride of place in our display. Not only are they wonderful to look at up close, illustrating some key points in our study, but they also act as a brilliant starting point in explaining why these primarily historical resources can be such an important resource for the future.

Much of the last two years has been spent extracting  the data we need from these specimens to allow us to explore evolutionary diversity amongst species through 3D scanning and photography.

sarahscanningScanning bird beaks, whilst allowing us to generate incredibly detailed digital replicas, is a hugely varied undertaking- one that requires lots of practice to tackle the bristles, feathers, damaged keratin, hooks, casques, curves and glossy surfaces that we encounter every day working with specimens. We gave scanning demonstrations throughout the evening, showing the process of imaging a bill from a variety of angles to capture a full three-dimensional model. We were also given a run for our money by some particularly talented members of the public!

markmybirdGetting people involved with our research via the next stage of our work, landmarking, is another important point for us. To turn a detailed 3D model into data that we can compare and interpret across all species, we need to place key points on every single scan. This is a time-consuming but engaging task and one we want citizen scientists of all ages to be able to try. Our crowdsourcing site – markmybird.org – has so far seen an incredible input from interested people all over the world, but there is still plenty left to get involved with!

In recent months we’ve also been experimenting with 3D printing, attempting to create accurate physical models of the bills we image. After some trial and error and with the help of experienced staff within the APS department, we were aultimakerble to create models of a selection of bills- much better for handling and demonstrating than the real thing!

We were lucky enough to have the 3D printer in action throughout the evening, slowly but surely creating a model of a sturdy corvid bill. It’s been brilliant to see our digital models taking physical form once again, providing a visual tool for displaying the variety in the form and shape of bird bills. Each model of the size pictured below takes around four hours to print. A life-size replica of a shoebill beak, for example, would take upwards of 24hours!

3DprintedbillsAlongside these demonstrations of our work we also had bill-weirdness Top Trumps, a plumage identification computer game, videos showing our work based in the Natural History Museum’s collections and an opportunity to take your own ultraviolet plumage shots. It was great to speak with so many interested visitors (with so many brilliant questions) and have the chance to show what we’ve been up to- whether as visitors or demonstrators, hopefully we’ll be back next year!

teamdiscoverynight

 

 

Lab Updates February 2017

facebooktwitter 

It’s been an exciting few weeks for all of us here at Team Macrobird with February seeing the first paper from our project published in Nature. We’re thrilled to finally have this out in print after over two years of data collection, analysis and the hard work of citizen scientists from around the world. We’ve already received some wonderful feedback and mentions in publications from the New York Times to the Yorkshire Post. You can learn more about the paper and our findings in our recent blog post or view it in full here.Nature issueAlongside this, the first portion of our data has now been made available via the Natural History Museum’s Data Portal– a dedicated space to ensure the museum’s collections, research and associated data is accessible to everyone. Whilst our website markmybird.org provides a gallery of approaching 8,000 3D scans, the data portal provides more in-depth data for an initial 2,028 specimens, comprising raw scan data and multiple landmarks for each as well as an adjoining spreadsheet featuring sex, museum registration number and taxonomic details. By making this data freely available we hope that more questions regarding beak shape can be investigated and answered by researchers, students and anyone with an interest well into the future.

NHM Data Portal

We’ve also had a new research assistant join our team collecting data at the Natural History Museum at Tring- Michael Jardine will be helping photograph the plumage of the world’s birds for the next six months. So too, Yichen He began his PhD towards the end of last year, working with PI Gavin Thomas to characterise phenotypic data for MicroCT scans of zebra finches.

Data collection: 3D scanning & UV photography

Whilst our first paper explores bill shape at genus level, we are still aiming to build a far more comprehensive dataset of bill and plumage information- covering as many of the approximately 10,000 extant species of bird as possible. This means data collection will be continuing full force, using the Natural History Museum’s ornithology collections at Tring.

Scanning has been going ahead in small increments this month with a number of new world warblers, australian robins and ovenbird species soon to be added to our site. Next month however, we aim to have a new push to complete the Furnariidae- more on this later.

sulphur crested cockatooIn contrast, towards the end of this month we moved over to having two photography light tents in operation for the first time. Not only will this increase the number of specimens we are able to image but the new, second light tent will also allow us to photograph larger passerines and many of the non-passerine families we choose to focus on.

Even better, this month we reached a significant milestone- with 25% of all world bird species imaged. This equates to a whopping:

12265 specimens photographed: we are selecting up to 6 specimens of each species, both male and female
73590 photos taken: six photographs- dorsal, ventral and lateral in both UV and human visible spectrums- of every selected specimen
22.68% of families
29.41% of genera
25.94% of species

MarkMyBird

Having only just celebrated the 1000th volunteer signing up to our crowdsourcing site markmybird.org last month, February has seen an amazing increase in new members with many first-time landmarkers contributing to our ongoing study through citizen science. We now have in excess of 1400 registered users with over 1000 bills landmarked this month alone, brilliant stuff!

great billed hermit

Landmarks placed along the beak edge of the Great-billed hermit (Phaethornis malaris), a species of hummingbird.

However, with scans for almost 80% of world bird species uploaded and ready to view on our website, the hard work isn’t over yet! If you’ve just heard about our project, have an interest in ornithology, are interested in the way historical museum specimens are used in modern science or are just curious to see what it involves to become a citizen scientist, head on over! We’ve even made a short video, showing the basics of landmarking a bill from beginning to end:

#BeakoftheWeek

Maui parrotbillOur twitter competition #BeakoftheWeek takes place every Wednesday- a chance to test your bird identifying skills against our 3D models. A favourite pick from this month was the Maui parrotbill (Pseudonestor xanthophrys), an unusual and misleading bill shape that really kept people guessing! Everyone is welcome to join in and a place on our leaderboard (as well as bragging rights) is up for grabs…

Other news

Macrobird post-doc Chris Cooney was lucky enough to undertake a research visit to the University of Chicago- spending time with Trevor Price and his lab group before scanning some hard-to-find species from the collections at the world famous Field Museum. You can read more about Chris’ American adventure here.

Finally, congratulations are in order for Will Wood and Louie Rombaut, both of whom undertook summer research projects last year as part of the University SURE (Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience) scheme. Both Will and Louie spent time with us collecting data at the Natural History Museum in Tring and presented their findings at a recent open evening.

louie, will, chris

Happy New Year-ish!: Lab Updates January 2017

facebooktwitter
It’s been another busy few months for all of us here on team MacroBird and time has flown since our last update at the end of the Summer. Team changes, data collection, paper writing, outreach and PhD-beginnings have kept us occupied as we start another year of all things macroevolution!

Data collection will be continuing throughout 2017 using the fantastic ornithology collections at the Natural History Museum at Tring. With two remaining research assistants and a new member joining the team, both scanning and photography will be pushing on over the coming months. Emma Hughes, one of our original RAs, is now based with the rest of the team in Sheffield, beginning a NERC-funded PhD exploring the impact of global change on avian diversity.

IMG_8589At the end of September we took part in Science Uncovered- the Natural History Museum’s European Researcher’s Night event- for the second year running. MacroBird PI Dr Gavin Thomas gave a talk about our research and crowdsourcing project whilst we demonstrated our use of the collections with our scanners, specimens and citizen science website. You can read more about the night here.


Data collecting in Tring: 3D scanning & UV photography

Having achieved approaching 90% of species processed (with over 75% successfully scanned), we’re well on our way to completing the scanning component of our project. The remaining species that are available within the Natural History Museum’s collections will be scanned over the coming months and added to our crowdsourcing site MarkMyBird, increasing the diversity of bills available to view and landmark through our galleries. Remaining target families include the Tyrant flycatchers (Tyrannidae) and Ovenbirds (Furnariidae).

Finches

Clockwise from top left: I’iwi or Scarlet honeycreeper (Drepanis coccinea), Brown-capped rosy finch (Leucosticte australis), Long-tailed rosefinch (Carpodacus sibiricus), Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)

As such, data collection has had a shift of focus in recent months as our efforts have been turned from scanning to photography. After some alterations to the equipment we are using whilst imaging the plumage (male and female) of every extant species in both the human visible and ultraviolet ranges we continue to photograph our way through the passerines. We are currently progressing through the brilliantly varied Fringillidae family, including everything from the European goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) to the fascinating Hawaiian honeycreepers.

MarkMyBird 

Fratercula arctica- Atlantic puffinOur crowdsourcing site markmybird.org still needs you! We are aiming to scan the bills of as many as possible of the world’s 10,000 species of bird and now have almost 80% of this total uploaded and ready for you to view and landmark on our dedicated crowdsourcing website. In order to include these incredibly detailed 3D scans in our study, we need citizen scientists to help us ‘landmark’ these models, placing key points and traMagpie2cing curves and edges. The process allows you to get up close to this fascinating and massively variable area of avian anatomy and contribute to this wide ranging research. We have everything from extinct and endangered species to old favourites such as the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica– left) and the Eurasian magpie (Pica pica– right) to explore. This month we reached a fantastic milestone, exceeding 1000 registered users on the site- brilliant stuff! 

#BeakoftheWeek

Our weekly twitter competition #BeakoftheWeek is still going strong with some especially unusual choices in recent weeks- including the little spotted kiwi (Apteryx owenii), as pictured below. Anyone is welcome to join in and have a guess every Wednesday- you might even be first to get the correct answer and make your way onto our extremely prestigious leader board.

kiwi

Publications

After over two years of data collection, thousands of 3D scans (and even more specimens assessed, measured and processed), the contributions of scores of citizen scientists and months of analysis, we’re thrilled to say that the first paper resulting from this project has been accepted for publication. The paper will available to read very soon and we’ll be sure to make lots of noise when the publication date arrives- watch this space!

Images

All scans (c) of Team Macrobird and The Natural History Museum (London and Tring)
Finch photographs: credits provided.

1000 citizen scientists- thank you!

facebooktwitterCitizen Science- Thank You

Since our crowdsourcing site markmybird.org launched in September 2015 we have had scores of brilliant citizen scientists offer their time, skills and curiosity to this research project.

This month our 1000th citizen science volunteer signed up to the site- a fantastic milestone!

This year will see the publication of our first paper resulting from this study, an achievement that has been aided in no small part by this generosity from interested individuals. Every landmarked scan has helped us reach this stage and will assist in increasing our understanding of avian evolution.

The work isn’t over yet though- data collection is still continuing in museum collections and more scans means more landmarking! Whether you want to learn more about research of this nature, wonder about the ways museum specimens are utilised in modern science, are interested in the amazing diversity of birds or just curious about what we’re up to, markmybird has lots to explore for everyone. No matter what your background, age or experience, anyone can sign-up and have a go, so head on over!

Science Uncovered 2016

facebooktwitter 

After having a great time showcasing our research last year, we were invited back to take part in the Natural History Museum’s offerings for European Researcher’s Night 2016.

IMG_8574-2IMG_8589

One of the best parts of our role as Research Assistants is the freedom to work with the museum’s collections everyday, moving across all taxa and, at times, preparation methods (study skins, spirit and skeleton specimens) as data collection requires. Without access to such incredible collections, wide-ranging studies such as ours simply wouldn’t be possible and the importance of highlighting the many uses of such diverse and well-maintained resources is becoming increasingly important. When they were collected, primarily during the heyday of Victorian exploration and collecting, nobody could have anticipated the ways in which these specimens would be used. Yet, by preserving them for future generations, this historical material can now be utilised in contemporary science projects, continuing to help us understand the evolving biodiversity of the planet.IMG_8576

There’s no better way to show this than with the real thing so we selected an array of study skins- exactly like those kept in the natural history museum’s ornithology research collections and used in our study- for people to explore up close. Alongside these were a selection of skulls from the museum’s handling collections, ranging from the large, stocky bill of the marabou stork and the curved, pointed bill of the kestrel to the filter feeding bill of a flamingo and the mud-probing bill of an ibis.

With our portable 3D scanner in tow, we were alsIMG_8578o able to give live scanning demonstrations with anyone welcome to have a go at creating their own 3D digital bill model- not as easy as it looks! By demonstrating how we move from a physical specimen to a detailed digital replica it becomes clear why this is only possible with study skins- it would be practically and logistically impossible to replicate this process with living birds in the field.

One of the great things about talking to the public about our research in particular is that anyone interested can actually become a citizen scientist and contribute to the study through the wonders of our crowdsourcing site markmybird.org. With over three-quarters of world bird species now uploaded, there are thousands of bills to explore up-close via our gallery as well as opportunities for anyone to have a go at landmarking our 3D scans, assisting with our analysis and helping answer key questions about avian evolution.

In addition to our stand, Principal Investigator Gavin Thomas gave a talk introducing our research and its reliance on ornithology collections. Situated in thIMG_8588e public galleries of the Natural History Museum at Tring- a Victorian zoological collection and display space donated to the NHM by its founder, Walter Rothschild- it was a great opportunity to highlight the value of largely unseen research collections and highlight the questions we are hoping to answer.

Alongside our offerings were demonstrations from expert taxidermists showing how museum specimens are preserved and the opportunity to see some of the manuscript treasures of the Natural History Museum being made available through the digitisation efforts of the amazing Biodiversity Heritage Library. There was also the opportunityscarlet rumped trogon drawing to talk to curators about contemporary museum issues: from a stand exploring the use of bird skins in helping identify material picked up by HM Customs, blocking aircraft engines or contaminating foods to discussions concerning how natural history museums deal with selecting (and declining) new acquisitions.

You can learn more about European Researcher’s Night here, the Natural History Museum at Tring here and us on our team website, twitter and crowdsourcing site!

 

 

Lab Updates July 2016

facebooktwitter 

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

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.

Lab Updates June 2016

facebooktwitter 

 

Team2

June saw team member Chris Moody (dog whisperer, last on the right) move on from his role as photographer-extraordinaire to challenges anew. Alongside our farewells to Chris, the usual data collection and analysis have been keeping us all busy..

We were also joined by an undergraduate from the Department of Plant and Animal Sciences at Sheffield, Will Wood, for a fortnight. After successfully being awarded a SURE (Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience) grant, Will (who is interested in how UV plumage is affected by the environment, with a particular focus on South American suboscine passerines) came to shadow the team during data collection at the Natural History Museum, having a go at photography, scribing and using these amazing collections.

Data Collection in Tring: 3D Scanning

Haeckel HummingbirdsThis month we finally finished scanning the majority of the sunbirds (Nectariniidae), a massive task requiring lots of patience! We are still left with a number of large families with narrow, fine or bristly bills to occupy us, including the tyrant flycatchers (Tyrannidae).

A current target remains to continue working our way through the more than 300 species of hummingbird (Trochilidae). This month, we scanned some species of Lophornis, a genus of particularly tiny hummingbirds known as the coquettes. These fantastic birds have some of the most outlandish plumage, with the males displaying particularly colourful crests and markings.

Many of the hummingbirds have brilliant names, and some of our favourites from recent weeks include the festive coquette (Lophornis chalybeus), the bronze-tailed plumeleteer (Chalybura urochrysia), the blossomcrown (Anthocephala floriceps) and the glowing puffleg (Eriocnemis vestita).

To date we have scanned:

  • 7159 (71.64%) of species
  • 3338 (82.38%) of species from island families
  • 3893 (62.25%) of passerines
  • 3263 (81.03%) of non-passerines

Data Collection in Tring: UV and Visible Photography

The Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

The Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

One of the main families we have been photographing this month are the Starlings (Sturnidae) – displaying some of the most impressive iridescence we’ve come across yet. Even the Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris), with its white feather tips and glossy greenish, blue, and purple sheen, has beautiful, complex plumage when viewed up close.

Lamprotornis Starlings. Above Left: Superb Starling (Lamprotornis superbus), Above Right: Burchell's Starling (Lamprotornis australis), Below: Emerald Starling (Lamprotornis iris)

Lamprotornis Starlings. Above Left: Superb Starling (L. superbus), Right: Burchell’s Starling (L. australis), Below: Emerald Starling (L. iris)

Our process of imaging each specimen requires a series of single dorsal, ventral and lateral shots. These static images don’t necessarily display this extraordinary iridescence in all its variety (as with these photographs taken in the field) but will allow us to compare and assess the extent to which, if at all, these species utilise UV reflecting plumage.

To date we have reached:

  • 69 (35.57%) of families
  • 2654 (26.56%) of species
  • 12264 specimens: we are selecting up to 6 specimens of each species, both male and female
  • 75384 photographs: six photographs- dorsal, ventral and lateral in both UV and human visible spectrums- of every selected specimen

Mark My Bird

Our crowdsourcing site markmybird.org has now exceeded 840 registered landmarkers- with 3D bill models for over half of all extant world bird species available, there is a huge variety to view and landmark. As mentioned above, we have recently been working on scanning the bills of as many species of hummingbird as possible so these will soon be uploaded for people to explore with other new species regularly added as they are imaged from the museum’s collections. If you would like a go, simply visit our site markmybird.org and sign up, everyone’s efforts- however big or small- will help contribute to this huge research project.

#BeakoftheWeek

Our twitter competition #BeakoftheWeek has continued every Wednesday (plus the occasional surprise Thursday). Everyone is welcome to join in and have a go at guessing the species of bird from one of our fantastic 3D bill models. One of this month’s challenges was the straight-billed reedhaunter (Limnoctites rectirostris), pictured here (more on this bird at a later date). If you think you’ve got what it takes, have a guess and perhaps even make it into our leaderboard!

Publications

Cooper, N., Thomas, G.H., & FitzJohn, R.G. (2016). Shedding light on the ‘dark side’of phylogenetic comparative methods. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 7(6): 693-699.

Images

Page from Ernest Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur (1904), showing a variety of hummingbirds (Trochilidae) is out of copyright

Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) taken by Koshy Koshy is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Lamprotornis Starlings
Above Left: Superb Starling (Lamprotornis superbus) taken by Sumeet Moghe is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 
Above Right: Burchell’s Starling (Lamprotornis australis) taken by Bernard DUPONT is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Below: Emerald Starling (Lamprotornis iris) taken by Doug Janson is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

 

The Tawny Frogmouth (Podargus strigoides)

facebooktwitter
The Tawny Frogmouth (
Podargus strigoides), a #BeakoftheWeek contender from last year,  is a weird and wonderful member of the Podargidae family.

Adult tawny frogmouth, perching in daylight, Queensland

Adult tawny frogmouth, perching in daylight, Queensland

Alongside oilbirds, potoos and some nightjars, frogmouths are part of the wider order of birds known as Caprimulgiformes. Literally meaning ‘goat-milker’ in Latin, this peculiar name is said to have derived from folk tales regarding the feeding habits of the European nightjar, thought to surreptitiously suck the milk from goats in the depths of night!

The Tawny Frogmouth was first described in 1801 by the great English naturalist John Latham who was able to study and name many species of Australian birds from specimens finding their way into England’s growing natural history collections at the turn of the 19th century. In his first great ornithological work ‘A General Synopsis of Birds’ he actually focuses on the unusual bills of these then so-called ‘goatsuckers’ as follows: 
“The bill in this genus is very short, and hooked at the end. Gape vastly wide: on the edges of the upper mandible seven or more stiff bristles.”

Tawny Frogmouth 2

Ornithological painting from the Natural History Musuem’s collection of First Fleet artwork: “Strigoid Goatsucker”, native name “Birreagal”

One of the earliest known images of these birds is part of the collection of artworks created during the First Fleet expedition of the 1780s that saw the formation of the first European colony in Australia. Over half the natural history artworks focus on birds, with a number acting as iconotypes (where an image has survived but the specimen it was taken from (usually the earliest known to science) has not).

This fantastic painting, noted as a type and labelled around its time of creation as depicting a ‘Strigoid Goatsucker, native name Birreagal’ was re-examined in 1970 and confirmed as being detailed enough to accurately identify as Podargus strigoides.

Tawny frogmouths can be found throughout Australia and Tasmania and are known to live in most available habitats- from forests and woodland to heaths and urban areas. Known for their ‘cryptic plumage’, their colouration is variable, but usually consists of greyish upperparts, streaked with barring and vermiculation in blacks and brown with females usually having darker feathers.

Frogmouths have often been confused with owls, seemingly as a result of their nocturnal habits, brilliant camouflage and expressive faces alongside some quirks of historic synonymy. Confusingly, some of the most commonly used names for the Tawny Frogmouth are ‘Birreagal’ and ‘mopoke’, a name also shared by the boobook, a small Australasian owl. The Latin name strigoides itself reiterates this, with strix meaning owl, and oides meaning form. Many resources continue to refer to frogmouths as ‘false owls’ or simply ‘tawny frogmouth owls’ for good measure; there are however a number of key differences between these taxa.

Unlike most owls with their strong legs and curved, pointed bills for killing prey, the tawny frogmouth has an extraordinarily wide, chunky bill ideal for catching and consuming insects. So too, during daylight hours frogmouths tend to perch on branches, utilising their extraordinary camouflage to blend in with their surroundings and avoid detection. Unlike owls, they gather most of their food by ‘pouncing’ from low branches to the ground where they mainly feed on worms, slugs, snails, reptiles, frogs and small mammals.

Tawny Frogmouth family- these birds have some of the most fantastical looking chicks.

Tawny Frogmouth family, New South Wales. Frogmouths have some of the most fantastical looking chicks.

Tawny Frogmouths breed between August and December with both sexes sharing incubation duties. Their nests are fairly loosely formed structures, primarily comprised of sticks and usually creating a platform between forked tree branches to safely raise their young  (having an average clutch size of 2 to 3 eggs) from the ground. These birds have distinctive ‘soft and low’ pitched calls, most commonly sounding like sequential bursts of ‘oom-oom-oom’ sounds, and are known to loudly bill-snap when threatened:


You can find out more about which species are related to the Tawny Frogmouth at OneZoom. For now though, I’ll end this post with a passage from another historical text, The Birds of Australia of 1911, which brilliantly captures the appearance and character of these birds:

‘The Frogmouths are beautifully soft-plumaged birds, with a motley of grey, brown, black and white markings. In the coloration then they resemble the dead bark of the bough on which they sit. To render it still more difficult of detection, the bird does not sit across the bough, but along it, assuming the stiff attitude of a rugged branch broken off short. The eyes are large and adapted to the diminished light of night, the brighter light of day seemingly making them dazed and inert. In both these characters they resemble the Owls. Their disposition is however, much milder, and they can be handled by day without attempting to offer any resistance. They are invaluable insect feeders, and capture their food, Cicadas, Phasmids and Beetles, &c., on the branches of the trees. After swallowing an insect they bring their mandible together with a loud snap, as if in satisfaction over the tit-bit.’

References
Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive, Podargus strigoides: http://www.hbw.com/species/tawny-frogmouth-podargus-strigoides (accessed April 2016)

White, John, A General Synopsis of Birds: Vol 2, Part 2, London, Printed for Leigh, Sotheby, & Son (1801). Available via Biodiversity Heritage Library:  http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/105238#page/7/mode/1up

The First Fleet Expedition and Collections, Natural History Museum London- Library and Archives Collections: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/art-nature-imaging/collections/first-fleet/art-collection/index.dsml (accessed April 2016)

Australian Museum, Podargus strigoides factsheet: http://australianmuseum.net.au/tawny-frogmouth (accessed March 2016)

Lucas, Arthur Henry Shakspere & Le Souëf, W. H. Dudley, The Birds of Australia,  London, Whitcombe and Tombs Limited (1911). Available via Biodiversity Heritage Library:
http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/114952#page/9/mode/1up

Images and Audio

Adult tawny frogmouth, Queensland by Tatters is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“Strigoid Goatsucker”, native name “Birreagal” from the Natural History Museum’s collection of First Fleet artworks, available online: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/art-nature-imaging/collections/first-fleet/art-collection/nathist.dsml?sa=1&lastDisp=gall&notes=true&beginIndex=264&desc=true

Tawny Frogmouth family, New South Wales by tinykettle is licensed under CC BY-NC 3.0

Audio recording of Tawny Frogmouth (Podargus strigoides) call, XC150467, by Marc Anderson. Accessible at: http://www.xeno-canto.org/150467