End-of-year stats

As we near the end of 2016, you probably read various statistics about events that happened during the past year. We at the museum of Biological Diversity are, for example, interested in how many species have become known to science and how many have gone extinct during the last year.

I came across a list of 13 bird species that had to be declared extinct during 2016. A quick search on VertNet – an online database that aggregates occurrence records from many natural history museums around the world and is accessible to everyone for free over the Internet – so check it out! – reveals that at least some of these extinct species will live on as specimens in natural history collections. These birds all lived on islands and have actually only recently become known to science as distinct species. They will not live longer in the wild, but some will be accessible in museum collections. Here researchers can study them to find out how these species lived and their findings may help prevent extinctions of related species in the future. That’s why we need to keep preserving our specimens!

Below are some photos of the Vermilion Flycatchers in our collection, the males have bright red plumage with black, the females are more subtle in their coloration. Metadata are important with each specimens, including where the bird was found. When some island populations of a species get split off into their own species we can then update our database. We do not have what is now known as the least vermilion flycatcher, our specimens are from Brazil, Texas, Colorado and one skin from Ohio. You may have guessed, the latter was prepared by Milton Trautman in 1958, collected by William G. Porter in Clark county. Only few records of this species exist in Ohio. On eBird, an online database of bird observations, I found only four additional sightings in 1956, 2001, 2009 and the latest in 2010.

The following three species exist in natural history museums, mostly in large collections such as the American Museum of Natural History, but also in smaller ones like the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History where one of the Laysan Honeycreepers can be found. Here are the numbers:

19 specimens of Laysan Honeycreeper Himatione fraithii
166 specimens of Least Vermilion Flycatcher Pyrocephalus dubius
2 specimens of Marianne White-eye Zosterops semiflavus 

You may remember from our fundraiser last October that the OSU tetrapods collection also holds specimens of several extinct species. Let’s hope that we do not have to add any new bird species to our already extinct species in 2017.  Happy New Year!


The pigeon family

Earlier this week we talked about the role museums play in bringing back extinct species, like the Passenger Pigeon. But how did the Passenger Pigeon get to be part of the pigeon family?

The word pigeon tends to evoke a vision of a motley looking gray-brown plump bird bobbing around a feeder. And while some pigeons can be rather dull looking by exploring the tetrapod collection’s trays of Columbidae, the family for pigeons, you will see that some species are brightly colored, some are big or small, and some have unique feather patterns. Look for why all these different species are put in the same family. Keep an eye out for bill size and shape, which helps define the diet of a species. Examine the overall body shape of the pigeons, this can inform you how they nest, fly or move on the ground. Last, inspect the feet of the pigeons, feet can inform you about diet and movement of a species.

Comment below if you find other characteristics that these specimens have in common and allow us to place them in the same family!

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About the author: Stephanie Malinich is the collection manager of the OSU tetrapods at the Museum of Biological Diversity.

Field ornithology

A recent post on Cool Green Science about Margaret Morse Nice “How a Scientific Outsider Changed How We Study Birds” inspired me to think more generally about how researchers study bird behavior in the field and how acoustic recordings can help us understand bird behavior. By the way, here “field” does not refer to a type of habitat rather it encompasses any natural habitat (rivers, lakes, meadows, forests etc.) in which animals live.

Margaret Morse Nice portrait

Margaret Morse Nice looking into a nest of baby sparrows, 1956 (Wikipedia)

Margaret Morse Nice’s most important contributions to ornithological research were probably in the advancement of techniques in studying birds. She was one of the few American women ornithologists in the 1930s and the first to make detailed observations of individual birds. She followed Song Sparrows through their lives, took notes on their life history and published her observations in over 200 papers and books. Most of her publications are listed in her autobiography “Research is a passion with me“.

cover of Margaret Morse Nice's book Research is a passion with me

Book by Margaret Morse Nice “Research is a passion with me”

Interestingly, Nice who was born in Massachusetts in 1883 studied Song Sparrows in Columbus, OH where she and her family lived in 1927-1936. During these eight years she closely followed birds on their property off Patterson Ave, a floodplain on the east-side of the Olentangy river just north of Lane Ave, what is today Tuttle park. Even though the habitat has changed from the shrubs, weeds and gardens in Nice’s time you can still find open areas especially along the river which Song Sparrows to this day use to build their nests and raise their young.

To follow individual birds closely, identify them repeatedly and note their behavior and interactions with each other, it was clear to Nice that she needed to mark the birds. Over the years she trapped some 870 Song Sparrows which she marked with unique combinations of plastic color bands on their legs. We still use the same technique today.

color-banded Song Sparrow

“Red-black / yellow-metal” banded Song Sparrow (c) K. Whittaker

Bird banding actually started in Europe as an aid to follow migrating birds and still is used for this purpose: Researchers put a metal band with an engraved unique number on a bird’s leg – just like your social security number. They report this number as well as where and when the bird was caught and banded to a central lab, here in the USA the central bird banding lab in Maryland. When somebody then recaptures or finds a banded bird, they can access this information through the bird banding lab and relate it to data they collect about the bird.

Colored leg bands help researchers to follow individual birds. Sounds easy? It can be once you have the colored leg bands on the bird. First you have to catch the bird and that can prove tricky. We primarily use two established bird trapping techniques: walk-in traps and mist-nets.

Just as the name implies, wire-mesh traps are placed on the ground, seeded with some tasty morsels and when the bird in search of food walks into the trap a door closes behind it and traps it within.

Collared Dove in a Potter Trap

Collared Dove in a Potter Trap (c) Third Wheel Ringing Supplies

For a mist-net imagine a volleyball net strapped between two poles but with finer mesh and all the way to the ground. These nets work best in foggy weather conditions when they are nearly invisible and when placed strategically in a bird’s flight path, the subject will fly into the mesh, bounce and fall into a fold at the bottom of the net and get entangled. We then “extract” the bird from the net and band it. – By the way not everybody can trap and band birds because they are highly protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act dating back to 1918. Through training with a master bird bander researchers can obtain a U. S. Federal Bird Banding and Marking Permit.

So what role does sound play in this? Sometimes we lure birds to the mist-net by playing calls or songs of its species. Why does this attract a bird? Most songbirds are territorial, i.e. they defend an area that they use exclusively for feeding or breeding and song keeps every other bird of the same species out of this territory. Some researchers have actually done clever experiments to prove this keep-out function of birdsong, but that is a story for another post.

Doug Nelson holding up a loudspeaker playing bird song in front of a mist net

Doug Nelson holding up a loudspeaker playing bird song in front of a mist-net in Oregon (c) Angelika Nelson

So, birds do not produce their most beautiful songs to please us, rather one function is to repel a male contender. If the opponent does not take this warning, a bird will switch to physical attack. Exactly this behavior can get them trapped in a mist-net as they search intently for the invisible opponent, aka loudspeaker, and eventually dive at in attack.

This brings me back to Nice’s contributions to field ornithology: Nice studied closely the territorial behavior of “her” birds. Once all males were banded she made close observations of where they sang, how they interacted with neighbors and whether they were able to attract a mate. She described patterns of invaders and defenders during territorial encounters and described the role that song played in these. To this day this is a prominent research topic in our lab where we have studied territorial singing behavior in the White-crowned Sparrow and other species over the last decades.

Following in the footsteps of Margaret Morse Nice, Dr. Chris Tonra, Assistant Professor in the School of Environmental and Natural Resources at Ohio State, has started a project to continue work on behavior of the Song Sparrow. He and his students regularly band today’s local Song Sparrow population at Ohio State’s Wilma H. Schiermeier Olentangy River Wetland Research Park, less than one km upstream from Nice’s former home, and follow them throughout the year. He uses some of the techniques from Nice’s days, others have advanced – read more about the project here!


About the author: Angelika Nelson is the curator of the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics. Her recent research has focused on song and behavioral ecology of the White-crowned Sparrow in Oregon; each spring Angelika teaches the OSU course “Ohio Birds” where students learn about the life of birds and how to identify them in the field – by sight and sound.



“Nice, Margaret Morse.” Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. 2008. Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2016).

Am I or Am I Not a Dinosaur? Skull Identification Quiz

Do you love dinosaurs? Many of us grew up in the shadow of Jurassic Park Mania, and went through a dino-crazed phase during our childhood. Still, can you identify a dinosaur when you see one? There seems to be a lack of public awareness of what is actually classified under the label of Dinosauria.

Test your knowledge with this tetrapod skull ID quiz and check your answers below. The truth may surprise you! We would love to get comments from you. Which of these skulls is the most challenging?

1. Dinosaur or not a dinosaur?

(Image Source: G Terrell 2016)

2. Dinosaur or not a dinosaur?

(Image Source: G Terrell 2016)

3. Dinosaur or not a dinosaur?

(Image Source: G Terrell 2016)

4. Dinosaur or not a dinosaur?

(Image Source: G Terrell 2016)

5. Dinosaur or not a dinosaur?

(Image Source: G Terrell 2016)

6. Dinosaur or not a dinosaur?

(Image Source: G Terrell 2016)

7. Dinosaur or not a dinosaur?

(Image Source: G Terrell 2016)

8. Dinosaur or not a dinosaur?

(Image Source: G Terrell 2016)

9. And finally, dinosaur or not a dinosaur?

(Image Source: G Terrell 2016)

(all photos are by G Terrell 2016)



1) Yes! This is the skull of Herrerasaurus ischigualastensis. Herrerasaurus was an early theropod dinosaur from the late Triassic period, and one of the first predatory dinosaurs. (Image Credit: http://images4.fanpop.com/image/photos/22200000/Herrerasaurus-dinosaurs-22232913-1438-588.jpg)


2) No! This meter-long skull is from the living crocodilian, Gavialis gangeticus, or gharial. Gharials can be easily distinguished from crocodiles and alligators by their incredibly thin jaws, which are  an adaptation for catching fish.

(Image credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gharial#/media/File:Gharial_san_diego.jpg)


3) Yes! This skull is from the Keel-billed Toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus), a colorful Latin American member of the toucan family Ramphastidae. Living birds comprise the only extant members of the dinosaur family tree. Dinosaurs are not really extinct at all, there are approximately 10,000 species of living birds. Keel-billed Toucans may seem to have cumbersome bills, but they are surprisingly lightweight and useful for thermoregulation.

The closely related Chestnut-mandibled Toucan Ramphastos swainsonii (Credit: G. Terrell 2016)


4) No! This skull belongs to the early synapsid of the Permian period, Dimetrodon. Dimetrodon is often (mistakenly) labeled as a dinosaur in the popular media. In fact, Dimetrodon is a member of the lineage that eventually lead to mammals. So, as mammals, we humans are far closer relatives of Dimetrodon, than Dimetrodon is of any dinosaur.

(Image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dimetrodon_grandis.jpg)

5) Yes! This skull is from the late Jurassic dinosaur, Archaeopteryx . Often recognized as the “first bird,” Archaeopteryx was actually just one of many feathered, fluffy, winged dinosaurs that flitted around the forests of the Jurassic. Though probably not as well as modern birds, it is thought that Archaeopteryx was capable of briefly-sustained flight.

(Image credit: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/3/33/Archaeopteryx_lithographica_by_durbed.jpg/1280px-Archaeopteryx_lithographica_by_durbed.jpg)

6) No! This is the skull of the rhinoceros iguana (Cyclura cornuta), a species of lizard in the family Iguanidae. Rhinoceros iguanas live on the island of Hispaniola, where they can reach up to 54 inches in length.

(Image Credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhinoceros_iguana#/media/File:RhinoIguanaMay07Pedernales.jpg)

7) No! This skull is the skull of a Komodo dragon, Varanus komodoensis, a species of lizard in the monitor lizard family Varanidae. Komodo dragons are the largest living lizards. They reach lengths of up to 10 feet! These large lizards have been known to prey upon water buffaloes.

(Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Komodo_dragon#/media/File:Komodo_dragon_(Varanus_komodoensis).jpg)

8) Yes! This is the skull of the Great Hornbill, Buceros bicornis. Great hornbills are large, mostly frugivorous birds of South Asia in the family Bucerotidae. Like many extinct dinosaurs, hornbills possess seemingly-bizarre head ornamentation that is only present in adult individuals.

(Image credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_hornbill#/media/File:Great-Hornbill.jpg)

9) Yes! This skull belongs to the famous Velociraptor mongoliensis. This late cretaceous predator, made famous by the Jurassic Park franchise, was a member of the Dromaeosauridae. This family of dinosaurs is extremely closely related to birds. All members of this family were fully feathered, possessed wings, and would have appeared to be “weird birds with teeth and tails.”

(A Velociraptor with prey. Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Velociraptor#/media/File:Velociraptor_restraining_an_oviraptorosaur_by_durbed.jpg)


GTerrellAbout The Author: Grant Terrell is a second year student in Evolution and Ecology at The Ohio State University. He works as a research assistant in the Tetrapod Collection at The Museum of Biological Diversity.