2017 September Evening Public Lecture — What's in a species name?

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Title: What's in a species Name?: How wildlife management relies on modern systematics research and museum collections
* What have museum collections taught us about invasive diseases?
* When is an endangered species not a species?
* How can birds in a museum help protect airline passengers?
* How do geology and biology govern what species we find on the Channel Islands?


Date Taken:

Length: 00:53:08

Location Taken: Menlo Park, CA, US


[ Silence ]

[background conversations]

Good evening.
Welcome to the USGS

in another installment in our
continuing public lecture series.

I’m delighted to
see you here tonight.

Some of you may know that the traffic
is horrendous – a big power outage.

So I don’t know how many people made
it over here, but I’m glad you made it.

Most of you know that,
before I introduce tonight’s speaker,

I always let you know about
next month’s lecture

because I want you to come
back in this continuing series.

Next month,
Steve Fortier is speaking

about global trends in
mineral commodities supplies.

Now, you might think that mineral
commodities supplies sounds pretty dry,

but let me tell you, if you live in a house,
and you drive a car, and you have a

smartphone in your pocket, you should
care about mineral commodity supplies.

So please do join us next month
to talk about global trends.

It’s kind of the intersection of science
and geology and politics and economics.

So it should be fascinating.

Tonight’s speaker is Dr. John French.
John French is the director of

the USGS Patuxent Wildlife
Research Center in Maryland.

So we’re very happy that
he took the time to fly

across the country and come
and visit us in the Golden State.

John French oversees
research on a variety of topics,

including wildlife toxicology,
coastal ecology, population modeling

and decision science,
and a variety of monitoring programs,

some of which you
may have heard of –

the American Bird Banding Lab
and the Breeding Bird Survey.

The Patuxent center also has
responsibility for the

North American
Vertebrate Collection

that is housed in the Smithsonian’s
Museum of Natural History.

John also, in his position,
sits on the U.S.-Canada

Whooping Crane Recovery Team,
and he has been involved in

whooping crane
conservation for many years.

His scientific training was a
doctorate at – a Ph.D. at the University

of Wisconsin in Maryland on the
ecology and physiology of land animals.

And he was initially hired at
Patuxent to undertake wildlife –

excuse me – to undertake
research in wildlife toxicology.

He’s been there since 1993 –
longer than the Patuxent Wildlife

Research Center has
been part of the USGS.

We are delighted to have him out here,
and please join me in welcoming

Dr. John French talk
about what’s in a name.

[ Applause ]

- Thank you for that nice introduction.
Good evening, everyone.

Glad you were able to
brave the traffic to get here.

I’m very pleased tonight to talk
about natural history collections and

museum-based research that we do at the
Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and –

for the benefit of USGS and the
Department of Interior and the nation.

Our museum group is, as you heard,
housed downtown in D.C.

at the Smithsonian’s natural –
national – sorry –

National Museum of Natural History.
Easy for you to say.

It’s – they do a lot of
really cool work there

with their colleagues
at the Smithsonian.

And by the way, in my introductory
slide here, I’d just like to point out

that this snake actually just had
lunch before it was collected.

And you can see that it’s
got a big gecko in its gut.

And I’ll tell you more about this later,
but I like this slide because it

exemplifies a couple of the themes
you’ll hear about during my talk.

And those themes are species
identification, invasive species –

that gecko in the gut of that snake is
an invasive species – human health and

safety, and a variety of new techniques
that are applied to museum specimens.

Let’s see if I can do this right here.
I’ll just do that.

You know, many of us
biologists got started

looking at animals when we were
younger, trying to identify them.

And perhaps you did
some of that yourself.

Maybe you’re birdwatchers or have
a pollinator garden or just like

being outdoors. Most of us
started out by using field guides.

And field guides have –
are really packed full

of all sorts of life
history information.

And I don’t know if you’ve
ever wondered where all that

life history information comes from,
but really it comes from natural history

museums, and specifically, research
collections at natural history museums.

So that’s the subject of my talk today.
What is a natural history museum?

What are the collections used for
at research museums like that?

And what are the
benefits of work that

comes out of folks
that work at museums?

So let me introduce to you our
group there at the Smithsonian.

We call them the
Biological Survey Unit.

This unit was formed in 1889 –
only a couple years after

the U.S. Geological
Survey was formed.

At that point, it was called
the Bureau of Biological Survey.

And they were commissioned
to investigate and record

the diversity of vertebrates
in North America.

And really,
that mission continues today.

Pretty much just as it was,
except with a whole lot

better technology and a whole lot of
new methods and a whole lot

of different and interesting questions
that they have to answer as well.

As I mentioned, the BSU is stationed at
the National Museum of Natural History.

And we – while we curate the North
American collection of vertebrates –

that’s mammals, birds, amphibians,
and reptiles – I realize fish are

vertebrates, but we don’t do them.
We do the terrestrial ones.

And that section of the collection
is really, by far, the largest part

of the collection at the Smithsonian.
You can see those – for mammals,

we have about the same amount of
specimens in the North America

collection as we do in all the rest of the
collection for the rest of the world.

More birds in our collection than in the
world collection at the Smithsonian.

And many more herps. Herps – that’s
reptiles and amphibians together.

So almost – we’re well over a
million specimens are curated

by our group there.
So that’s a lot of work.

And, indeed, the mammal collection
is one of the best mammal collections

in the world in terms of its
comprehensiveness and detail.

And so people from all over
the world come to work with us

there at the museum.
It’s kind of fun.

You go down there, and there are
all sorts of people running around.

You know, you see very, very
interesting people down there.

So you’ve heard me use the
word “specimen” a couple times.

And I just want to start
from the beginning here.

A physical specimen
really is the basic unit

of all natural history collections –
physical specimen.

And we’re – what we’re
looking at here are a couple of –

or three specimens of the eastern
red-eared bat – a very pretty little bat.

It has a little bit
of red coloration.

So these specimens are
physical specimens.

They’re taken into the collection,
preserved very carefully.

The idea is to hang on to
these specimens really forever.

Of course, nothing lasts forever,
but we try our best to preserve

the tissues and the fur and the bones,
and even the soft parts, in alcohol,

are kept for many, many years.
The idea is to put them in a condition

that they will last for an awful long time,
which is, you know, the point.

So how do we – how do
we collect these specimens?

Well, early on in the life of a collection,
really, expeditions to go find specimens

and bring them into the collection –
or, bring them into the museum

is really what – you know,
it forms the bulk of the work.

And you can kind of imagine these
old guys with long mustaches out there

with shotguns collecting stuff. And
indeed, that’s what they looked like.

So they’d go out and trap and shoot
or net or do whatever you can do

to gather these animals in. Today,
we don’t really do that quite so much.

First of all, we realize that
collecting animals in the wild

actually does impact those
populations in a way that is

somewhat counter to the
whole purpose of having

the knowledge that comes from
a collection in the first place.

So oftentimes, what is done is,
animals are scavenged.

That is, dead animals are picked up.
Actually, road kill is a fairly

common way of getting new
specimens into the collection.

Early on in my graduate career –
here’s a little gruesome story –

I was out riding my bike
getting some exercise,

sick of that damn seminar I was in
kind of thing, and riding around

the countryside in Wisconsin
and, like, zipping along.

And I saw this animal in the road,
and I just stopped. I don’t know why.

I stopped. Turns out
it was a least weasel.

I’d never even seen
a least weasel before.

I picked it up, wrapped it up in my shirt,
stuck it in my saddlebag, and brought it

back to the – to the very small museum
at the University of Wisconsin and

skinned it out. And that was my first
introduction to museum collections.

But it’s that kind of sort of serendipitous
collection of specimens that now

forms really a lot of how we
get specimens into the collection.

So how do you create a specimen?
Well, I mentioned a little bit that –

about preserving the specimen,
but after an animal is collected,

an awful lot of work goes
into preparing the specimen.

Obviously, you have to
identify the thing first.

And I had an idea what that weasel was,
but I wasn’t exactly sure when I

picked it up off the ground.
So I had to identify it first.

And usually that proceeds by
comparing it to other specimens

in the collection or field guides, or,
if you can’t, take a picture and

sending information off to
colleagues around the world

and finding out what was going on.
Hopefully you do it correctly.

So preparation of the specimen is
very important, as I mentioned.

Usually mammals are skinned.
The bones – the carcass is taken out,

and the bones and all the –
all the flesh are put in a –

in a bin with a bunch of
sarcophagus beetles.

That is, beetles that eat
the flesh off the bones.

And after several weeks of that, you go
back, and you can retrieve the bones.

They are absolutely clean after these
beetles have chewed off all the flesh.

And those bones are kept.
And you can see these vials here

are actually bones that belong to
each one of these specimens here.

Not the entire skeleton,
but some of it.

Very importantly, there is a label
prepared for each specimen.

And here’s a kind of a blow-up of a –
of a label up here on the top.

I’m not quite sure why we have
this thing along the bottom of the

screen here, but I guess Apple wanted
to make its presence known here.

A label is a very important
part of the physical specimen.

It holds the absolute most important
information about that physical specimen –

the species, the date and location of
collection, the color of soft tissues.

Soft tissues, once they dry
out and age, lose their color.

And being able to recall what the animal
looked like when it was very fresh is an

important part of the – part of the data
that goes along with the specimen.

Also some – oftentimes
measurements are made.

And, while not on the label, sometimes
soft parts, as I mentioned, are removed.

Often the gut is removed.
Gonads are removed.

Parasites that are found on the outside
or the inside of the animal are

preserved in alcohol – all associated
with that one specimen.

So in order to – in order to make sure
that we know which data goes with

which specimen, the catalog number –
this number right up here – is by far

the most important bit of information
that goes on each specimen.

And all those – all those data that
I’m talking about – the measurements,

the coloration, the collection field notes,
photographs – and today’s – you know,

gene sequences, if genetic work
has been done on the specimen.

All of that data gets stuck in
the database – you know,

one of these fancy relational
databases today where everything

is connected with – in this case,
by the catalog number.

All that goes into a very big database
that’s actually publicly available.

If you’re interested in going on the
database of the national collection,

you can certainly
do that online.

Okay, all that’s gathered together,
and these animals are laid out nicely

in this tray with labels on them.
And then the thing is installed.

That sounds a little funny.
Maybe it sounds a little bit like

an art exhibition, but you take the tray,
and you locate it properly among

all the cabinets of specimens
within the museum.

And that location is important because
usually they’re put next to very similar

species – maybe similar species from this
continent, maybe from other continents.

It depends what the particular curator
is interested at the moment.

And it’s the comparison of
information across these

different collections that really provides
the power of information from museums.

So a series of specimens
becomes a collection that

could be analyzed and
used for many different topics.

So what are these collections good for?
Well, here’s a series of specimens.

These are all song sparrows,
as it turns out.

I’m sure many of you
have seen song sparrows.

And you can certainly see that
there’s quite a bit of variation in

coloration among these animals.
In fact, variation in size as well.

So how does this tray of birds relate,
say, to current management issues?

A lot of what we do is provide
information that helps land management

agencies and wildlife managers across
the country do the work that they do.

Well, one thing that’s
important to wildlife managers

is the description
of subspecies.

Subspecies are useful because –
or, necessary, in many cases –

because they are the
unit of protection

that’s enshrined in the
Endangered Species Act.

If there was an endangered subspecies,
the act requires the Fish and Wildlife

Service to go out and decide whether
it deserves – if it’s a very uncommon

subspecies, the Fish and Wildlife
Service must go decide whether

it’s worthy of protection under
the Endangered Species Act.

So very importantly, the museum
folks sort of delineate that

subspecies designation.
Which group of organisms are

we actually talking about when
we’re talking about a subspecies?

Is it really a subspecies?
It’s very interesting.

As we go through and work
with some of these specimens,

we find that species that we
thought were distinct actually –

or subspecies that we thought
were distinct actually are not.

And in other cases, you know,
subspecies are carved out of

what was initially thought
to be one single species.

It turns out that these two
left-hand birds on the tray –

the two large ones are indeed a
distinct subspecies of song sparrow.

And actually, about 30% of
all the birds that are protected

under the Endangered
Species Act are subspecies.

I think there are 31 of them,
so you do your math,

that’s about 100 entities protected
under the Endangered Species Act.

It turns out four of them
are here in California.

So for you ornithologists,
it’s the California least tern.

The southwestern willow flycatcher –
very hard to identify.

The least Bell’s vireo and then
the western snowy plover.

Plovers are –
those small, little plovers

are endangered just about
everywhere – every species too.

My ornithologist colleague says,
why don’t you ask people why they’re

so hard on their – on their subspecies
in California. I don’t know. [laughter]

I’m sure you’re
not hard on them.

Another value of collections is to try
and figure out what the distribution

of animals are – and here,
on a continental scale.

And particularly for bats – and again,
these are eastern red bats we’re

looking at, they’re not very – they’re
not readily observable in the wild.

They’re nocturnal.
They do chatter a little bit,

but usually very, very softly,
so you don’t hear them much.

People don’t – some people don’t like
bats very much, so they don’t pay

much attention to them. Maybe try
and get away from them. [chuckles]

But – so especially for an animal
like this that’s hard to see in the wild,

museum collections are
very useful in determining

ranges and migration schedule
and that kind of thing.

So here’s a map of locations
in the east where the eastern red bat

has been found.
And I don’t believe these are

all the locations in our collection,
but the range is there listed in gray.

So here’s a collection of –
a very attractive collection of eggs.

I particularly like those white ones with
the squiggly brown marks on them.

A very pretty,
you know, set of eggs.

And of course,
we do collect eggs from birds.

But what would be the
utility of gathering eggs?

Well, maybe some of you are
aware of the fact that, when DDT

was thought to be a harmful agent for
the production of – for laying down

calcium in eggshells in birds, one of
the important sets of data that actually

showed that there was a time – that there
was a chronology to this effect was

looking at eggs in museums and
measuring the thickness of eggshells.

And that study showed that
yes, indeed, before the DDT era,

eggshells were, you know, X thick.
After DDT was used, those shells

became much thinner in some birds –
in those birds that are

high-level carnivores that are
very highly exposed to

contaminants like this
through the food chain.

Adding more evidence that, indeed, the
DDT was the cause of eggshell thinning.

And I’d just like to make a plug for
Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.

The Patuxent folks, back in the 1960s,
did the definitive experimental work to

show, indeed, that, if you feed falcons –
in this case, falcons –

DDT, their eggshells,
indeed, are a lot thinner.

And many of the eggshells produced
in our experimental kestrel colony

at Patuxent – they were
unable to hatch the eggs,

so the eggs broke
as soon as they were laid.

So that was a really important
study in the history of Patuxent –

for sure, in the history
of wildlife toxicology.

Well, there is a – so this time series can
help us look at variation over time.

There’s another very interesting way
we can use some of these specimens,

and that is to look at what
we think is an invasive disease

here in the – in the U.S., or will be,
and that’s a fungus call Bsal.

Bsal is a contraction of a very
long Latin name that I’m not sure

I can pronounce, which is
the name of the fungus.

- [inaudible]

- Sorry.
- What’s going on?

- I was trying to get rid of this.

- Yeah.
I don’t know how to do that.

- Ignore me.
- Okay. [chuckles]

Where were we? Let’s see.

Here we go.

So here’s a lesion on a European
salamander – a fungal infection on the

skin of a salamander – really ugly
looking thing. Looks really gross.

And we have seen a
few imported salamanders.

And believe it or not, there was a
salamander trade in this country – a few

imported salamanders that have come
into the U.S. with these infections.

And we’re quite concerned
that it is something that we

don’t want to see in our native
population of salamanders.

It has devastated salamander
populations in Europe.

But the idea that it’s an invasive disease
was challenged a little while ago.

And how would we know whether
the disease was here or not?

Well, the herpetologists at the
museum decided, well, let’s go back

and look at 50 years of preserved
salamanders and see if we can find

any evidence of infection in these – in
these animals. Turns out they could not.

So, indeed, the –
two things came out of that.

One, the crash in population numbers
of plethodon salamanders in the east

was not due to this – likely not
due to this fungus, number one.

And number two, yes indeed,
this is an invasive disease.

It hasn’t been around for a long time.
So we do want to be quite careful about

importing salamanders
that might be infected.

Very interesting use of the collection to
go back and look at some historical data.

Well, handling all these animals gives the
folks at the museum a lot of expertise.

And much of that expertise
is directed towards

helping solving,
hopefully, societal issues.

You know, many of you have
heard of the risks of airplanes

bumping into birds in flight.
And, you know, there was that

Tom Hanks movie a little while ago
where you looked at – where you

recounted the story of the airliner
that hit a bunch of geese over

the Hudson
and came down.

There was a very dramatic and important
rescue of the folks on the plane.

Bird strikes happen quite a lot
with planes, as it turns out.

Bats also bump into planes –
or, as I like to say it,

planes are bumping into bats,

And the Air Force is
a little concerned about that.

They asked us to look at some of the
collisions between bats and their aircraft.

It’s kind of expensive when an F-16 gets
its engine blown up by a little bat, right?

So they wanted to know, was there
anything we can do to avoid it?

Well, first of all,
what bat is it?

So our expert here, Suzy Peurach,
takes a little bit of the gunk that’s left,

scrapes it off the blades in the –
in the turbines, and tries to identify

the bat by the nature
of the hairs that remain.

And she’s able to
do that pretty well.

And the idea is – here is that maybe
this could lead to mitigation efforts.

Maybe it can – they can change
their flight protocols or understand

something about the – when during
the year bats might be a problem that

Air Force base X, Y, or Z – see if they
can avoid some of those things.

So there’s some practical problems
that we can help solve as well.

Another way we apply
our expertise – again,

here’s another example
from the Armed Forces.

Our folks were asked to go over to
an Army base in Djibouti, East Africa.

How many of you
know where Djibouti is?

Good. I had to look it up the other day.
I hate to say it.

It’s a really tiny, little place
in very eastern Africa.

And so they were
concerned about

protecting the troops
that were on base there.

So a herpetologist went over and, gosh,
they found – let’s see if I get this right

here – two species of carpet vipers –
a very, very venomous snake.

And of course, we don’t want our
troops getting bitten by carpet vipers.

It wouldn’t
be a good thing.

So they figured out
something about the life history

of these animals and how to
avoid them and that kind of thing.

An interesting little side note on that –
it looked like– there are some hints

that the carpet vipers also are vectors
for the causative agent of Middle East

respiratory syndrome, or MERS,
which was also something to be avoided

on the base here – very hard to –
an infection that’s very hard to treat.

So here’s a picture of the –
of the viper over here, and you can

see the fangs coming out here.
I’m not sure I’d really want to get

that close to a viper, but, you know,
these guys know what they’re doing.

This picture kind of makes me laugh.
This guy wasn’t really

regular Army, I don’t think.
He wasn’t in uniform properly.

It’s one of our guys
who went over there.

Apparently they had – the Army had to
really get strict with him because

he didn’t want to wear his shoes.
So he had to wear shoes.

I guess the difference between
Army life and academic life.

So here’s a picture of that
snake from my first slide.

This is, in fact,
a diadem snake.

And the animal he ate is –
I’m sure you all know this –

this is a rough
bent-toed gecko.

I didn’t know that until my colleagues
told me what the identification was.

This gecko – I’m sorry.

The gecko is actually native to
the Middle East – not Africa.

And how it got there is
a little bit of a puzzle.

The puzzle is even
more strange because

there is a population of
these geckos in Arizona.

What are they doing in Arizona?
They’re native to the Middle East.

Well, the hypothesis is that there
was human transport of the geckos

from the Middle East to Arizona,
and then from Arizona to Djibouti

to the – to the camp there,
and then we found out about it

because the snake that
was collected had one in its gut.

So this is a very interesting example,
if it proves to be true,

of invasive species, or transport
of species – dispersal of species,

if you will, around the globe
by the agency of humans,

which is happening more
and more and more every day.

And I dare say, with the movement
of humans around the Earth,

we really can’t expect that there
isn’t going to be an almost completely

cosmopolitan group of species
eventually on the face of the Earth.

But – and when species invade other
areas that haven’t seen them, if they’re

predators, oftentimes, they do great
damage to the local flora and fauna.

That’s certainly
happening in Hawaii.

So invasive species is something
we work on quite a bit.

I’ve talked about invasive disease.
I’ve talked about these geckos.

And I mentioned that we work
on the North American collection.

Well, part of understanding what
the fauna is like in North America,

part of understanding how and when
we can recognize an invasive species,

is really helped out by the fact that
we have this worldwide collection

at the museum and can see,
understand, and recognize

an invasive species
when we see one.

It’s not just our folks that work
on the collections at the museum.

There are researchers from all over the
world that come by, as I mentioned.

And particularly folks
from North America.

Here’s a study that was done by
one of our colleagues in USGS

who lives in Colorado at the
Colorado Science Center out there.

And he was interested
in the distribution of the hoary bat.

You can see that
sort of frosty fur on the

ventral side of that bat up there –
hence the name, the hoary bat.

The hoary bat is a
migratory species,

but we really didn’t
know much about its migration.

We didn’t know when it was
migrating or where it was migrating.

And the interesting thing about
this bat is that it accounts for

about 40% of all the mortalities
of bats around wind towers.

Now, wind tower production is
ramping up greatly, especially in the

middle part of the country where –
you know, in the Midwest,

where it’s flat and
there’s no barrier to winds.

And the siting of wind farms has
become a – sort of a big business.

I guess you could
put it that way.

Most of the wind power companies
are fairly sensitive to the fact that

they don’t want to have problems
with killing species on the blades of the

wind tower after they install the thing.
They want – they’d much rather

know where to put the thing in a safe
place before they get going with it.

So part of the – part of the goal here is
to identify those areas of the country,

and maybe those seasons of the year,
when bat strikes are most likely to occur.

And the hoary bat is one that we
really are concentrating on there.

So the national collection was used
to actually determine and define

the migratory behavior of this bird –
or, bird – sorry – this bat.

We didn’t really have good collections
in the field, but the – but the – sorry –

didn’t have good field data on these
birds, but the – bats, but the collections

in the museum allowed this fellow
to define what the schedule

and spatial distribution
and migration was.

And those data have been used to
help site wind farms in the Midwest.

Well, most of the previous examples
I’ve talked about were conservation

questions having to do with individual
species, or maybe a predator and a prey.

But sometimes there are
larger questions that we deal with –

questions of much larger scope.
And an important one that’s

been ongoing for a while is the
crisis in amphibian biodiversity.

Maybe some of you know that
frogs and toads and salamanders

and other amphibians have
been declining worldwide.

It’s been recognized now for
about 20 years that there’s

been a real crisis in amphibian
population numbers worldwide

without really very many
answers about why it’s happening.

So evidence had been really mounting.
And in the 1980s, I think people came

together and realized that something
more comprehensive – some more

comprehensive data about the scope and
nature of the problem was really needed.

But amphibians have a –
so there are no dearth of ideas

about why it might be happening,
but the definition of what was

happening is what
was needed initially.

Amphibians have a
very complex lifestyle.

They, you know, start out in the water.
They lay their eggs in the water,

and then they move on to dry land.
That’s the amphi-bios –

two life – two lives.
That’s the Latin derivation of amphibian.

And so they’re subject to
habitat alteration and

habitat degradation in two
different habitats – land and water.

They also have a very permeable skin.
In fact, all amphibians are quite,

you know, slimy
or have wet skin.

And many of them
breathe through their skin.

In fact, many of them don’t have
any lungs and gather oxygen in only

through diffusion across their wet skins.
Which is kind of interesting.

Here’s another little
natural history fact for you.

Anybody know
what this is up here?

- [inaudible]
- Very good. Who said that?

This is a limbless amphibian.

Looks a little bit like a snake or
a worm or, you know, whatever.

In fact, it took –
it’s actually an amphibian.

Has no limbs.
Crawls like a snake.

And is really a very fascinating animal.
But indeed, it is an amphibian.

So what was needed here in the –
to define the scope of the problem was

a series of good monitoring programs.
But how are we going to do that?

Well, the folks in the museum put
together this – the initial book they put

together was in a series called Measuring
and Monitoring Biological Diversity.

And they did this
for the amphibians.

Basically, developed some standardized
protocols for designing a monitoring

program, going out and training
volunteers and others to carry it out in

a regular fashion so you get, you know,
quantitatively defensible data.

And then helped – also in here
was help analyzing the data

that were gathered
with those methods.

So this is essentially a how-to book,
or maybe even a self-help book.

And it’s been very, very influential.
Had many, many thousands

of references over the years.
Translated into several different

languages, and really has provided
guidance for amphibian monitoring

across the world for the last 20 years.
It’s really been very influential.

And I think that’s the kind of thing that
the folks at the museum can help with,

having done these kind of monitoring
programs themselves in the field.

So these methods were used in the U.S.
too, of course, and is the basis for the

North American Amphibian Monitoring
Program that we run out of Patuxent.

And that’s a series of methods
and protocols that we designed for

states to use, and we kind of
import the data – or, export the

method to the states, and
then they send us the data back.

And we’ve developed
some very good information

on amphibian decline
through those programs.

Another very interesting issue
with regard to amphibian monitoring

is they’re not very
readily seen – kind of like bats.

They’re – you know, except for frogs
and toads, who sing in the springtime,

you know, really very
hard to find these animals.

And actually,
when you think about it,

it’s the larval stages that
are the most abundant life form.

So one of our herpatologists
figured out that, you know, really,

some of these monitoring programs
would yield a lot more information,

and we might be able to find many more
of them if we looked at the larval forms.

And you can imagine – remember back
when you were out running around in

the springtime, and you’d see big
masses of frog’s eggs in a

ephemeral pond or something like that.
And then they all hatch, and there

are oodles and oodles of little
larvae tadpoles running around.

They’re easy to find –
easier to find than the adults, actually.

But we really don’t
know how to identify them.

If you go to a pond,
and you scoop up some water,

and you get a whole bunch of different
tadpoles, what the heck are they?

So Roy McDiarmid in our group and
his colleague Ron Altig put together

a guide to the larval
amphibians of North America.

It’s been very helpful for us in
North America, then, to do a more

comprehensive job of censusing the
amphibians in North America.

Very widely used. Published –
it’s a very difficult thing to do, actually.

It turns out we had a lot of
these amphibians in – preserved in

alcohol in the museum that we didn’t
know what they were. [chuckles]

So it was helpful for us
in the collection as well.

One result of all this attention towards
amphibians is that a couple new species

have been found. And one of them is
kind of a – it’s kind of an amusing story.

You usually think of
finding new species, you know,

out in the middle of nowhere
where nobody’s ever been.

Well, there was a new species of frog
found in New York and New Jersey –

probably the most heavily
populated portion of the U.S.

So right under the gaze
of the Statue of Liberty.

And there was a graduate student in –
I think it was at Rutgers –

who was doing some frog censusing.
And he heard this song that he

thought was – that he’d been calling a
leopard frog for, whatever, many years.

And as he started to listen to it,
he realized it was a little bit different.

Well, he collected this frog.
And indeed, it was a different frog.

It was identified initially
on the basis of the call.

But then, when they went back
and did some DNA sampling

of both this population and
other populations of leopard frogs,

they found that it
was quite different.

And it was declared a species
about three or four years ago.

It’s now
Lithobates kauffeldi.

And maybe you know leopard frogs.
How many of you took biology

and dissected leopard frogs?

- Yeah. [inaudible] still Rana pipiens?
- No. They’re no longer Rana.

They’re now Lithobates.
- Oh.

- Yeah.
Lithobates pipiens.

Right, but they’ve been
divided up now to the

Atlantic coast frog and then other
leopard frog subspecies as well.

But kauffeldi is really a
separate complete species.

And then the interesting – so this
was someone else that discovered this.

And they came to the museum and said,
all right, what have you got?

So we started to go through [chuckles] –
not we – not me, but they started to

go through their specimens
and found that we had a whole bunch

of these Lithobates kauffeldi
in our collection,

mislabeled as Rana pipiens,
now Lithobates pipiens.

So species can be found kind of right under
your nose in the collection as well as out

in the field. And our folks have
described something like

74 or 75 new species
over the – over the last 20 years.

Most of them found in the fields,
fewer of them found in the collection.

But new species
are still found today.

In fact, there was something
on the news yesterday about

a new giant rat that was found
in the Solomon Islands.

I don’t know if anybody
saw that – saw that news report.

It was kind of interesting.

A fellow was there and
worked just tirelessly to –

he had heard about
this rat but hadn’t seen it.

Had seen little evidence of it – scat
and little bits of food midden and

stuff like that. Finally found the thing
after many years. Big rat about this size.

I’m not sure I’d really want to see a
big rat that size, but anyways, he did.

So this talk has been just a little bit –
a sampling of the work that we do

at the Biological Survey Unit
at the Smithsonian Natural History

Museum and some of the uses
that those data are put today.

We’ve got some really interesting
projects coming up in the future

that I wanted to mention to you.
The subspecies of North American

birds are getting a complete overhaul
so that we will have a much better idea

of which are subspecies and which
aren’t and which of those need

protection under the Endangered Species
Act as an important outcome of that.

And they’re going to be
using new genetic material –

new genomic methods
to identify these subspecies.

And, as I mentioned earlier,
what tends to happen, in many cases,

when we have – when you go back
and look at subspecies that were

initially described on the basis
of morphological characters,

the genetic characters
often bring them back together.

So it sort of cuts down the work
of the Fish and Wildlife Service,

I think, for producing recovery
plans for many of those subspecies.

Another important thing we’re
doing is an all birds phylogeny.

You know, by all birds,
I mean all birds worldwide.

They’re applying some new
genetic methods to –

called ultra-conserved elements, for
those of you geneticists in the audience –

using those repeatable sequences
of genes across the entire genome

of birds in the U.S.
to try and get a better idea

of what the phylogeny
of birds worldwide is.

It’s going to be a big project.
There’s something like 11,000 species

in our collection that are going to be
looked at, so it’s going to take a while.

The microbiomes of North American
waterfowl – microbiome refers to the

cast of characters in your gut –
you know, the bacteria and other

microorganisms in your gut, which we’re
learning is a very important bit of

information for human health and clearly
for the health of other animals as well.

There’s an awful lot of
immunological interactions

that go along in the
microbiome in the gut.

And one particularly interesting
reason why we’re doing it in

waterfowl is because waterfowl are the
agent that transfers avian influenza,

which can, indeed,
be a human pathogen as well.

So we’re interested in knowing
which of these animals are going to be,

you know, adequate carriers
of the influenza virus,

and which of them might be able
to take care of the virus in their gut.

And then, as I mentioned –
implied, I guess, a little bit,

when I’m talking about frogs,
we need to – we’re hoping to

develop some better methods
for detecting frog calls.

There are all sorts of technological
advances these days,

like even your cell phone, that can be 
used in – for auditory sampling.

And there are, indeed,
apps that maybe some of you have,

where if you hear a bird that
you don’t – you can’t identify,

you hold up your cell phone, and 
sometimes it can identify it for you.

Kind of cool. We’d like to do
that for amphibians as well.

And then – you know,
I mentioned that the –

probably the first thing that gets done
when a museum is initiated is to

go out and do a wonderful field trip
and collect all the animals you can.

The first expedition from the
Biological – big expedition

of the Biological Survey was into
the southwest of the U.S. – Arizona,

New Mexico – along the Rio Grande
and the borderlands with Mexico.

So those specimens are old.
The expedition, we don’t think,

was quite as thorough
as it could have been.

There have certainly been animals that
have been moving around since then,

in the last 120 years. So we want
to go back and sample there.

And, gosh, we might even learn
something that would be important for,

you know, building a wall between
Mexico and the U.S. [laughter]

So part of what we want to do –
not part of, but a large part of

what we want to do with the
museum is prevent extinctions.

And this really beautiful specimen of a
Carolina parakeet at the bottom of the

slide here is one of the few birds in
North America that have gone extinct.

We’d like to provide the
information for wildlife managers

so that those extinctions
don’t happen in the future.

I’d be happy to answer any questions
you have. Thank you very much.

I think there’s
a microphone.

- Please use the microphones
in the center of the room.

- You had the tray of the eastern red bats.
There were 10 or a dozen specimens.

- Yeah. Yeah.

- How many specimens
do you like to have?

I imagine you want male, female,
juvenile, adult, and stuff.

Is there some optimum number?
And does it vary by species?

- Yeah. That’s a really good question,
and you’re not going to like this,

but I can’t
answer that.

In some cases, we have a whole,
whole heck of a lot, just because

a whole lot were scavenged in an area.
And that’s great.

And if it’s a very common species,
we’ll actually go out and collect a lot,

especially if there’s a question
that people would like to answer

with a whole lot of them.
Most of the time, we have a handful.

Sometimes we have one.
A lot of times, we have zero.

So anything is
really very, very helpful.

But as you, you know, implied,
there’s not a whole lot of comparison

that can go on with just two specimens.
And even less with one.

So if you’re really interested in a –
in a particular topic that requires

a series of specimens, often what
people do is they go around and

look at specimens at a
whole bunch of different museums

rather than just
go to one museum. Yeah.

- Would you please define “subspecies”?
- Oh, gee. [laughter]

Yeah, that’s a good question.

A subspecies is a unit of a species that
is sort of functionally independent –

or, reproductively independent and
identifiable by traits of some kind –

usually genetic traits –
identifiable separately from

other parts of the population.
But that can easily breed back with the –

with the species – other subspecies
within that population.

So they’re reproductively isolated
by circumstance, not by physiology.

That might be
one way to say it.

- So quite related to that question is,
you know, what is the current

working definition of “species”?
I know it’s changed, you know,

quite a bit over time.
- Yeah.

- Used to be very morphological.
Now it’s, you know,

breeding populations and overlap
and all this kind of stuff –

and stable hybridization zones
and all these things.

- That’s right.
- And now, of course, there’s all the

genetics that have come in, so …
- Right.

- Are there – what are the current
definitions, and do they –

do they vary by family or order?
- These are tough questions.

There’s a whole course on that that I took
when I was in graduate school.

And, as you know,
things have changed quite a bit

with the advent of
genetic sequencing and such.

All of those difficulties in defining
species are still there with new methods.

It’s just a little more refinement
of what we understand –

or how we can describe a
particular group of organisms.

You know, Ernst Mayr had
this independent breeding unit concept

that he used and felt that the
whole process of speciation

had to be a geographic process as well,
so that there was a separation in

some way – a barrier to interbreeding
between, you know, this group and

another group of organisms. And that
was the absolute definition of a species.

And in fact, those animals
could look almost identical,

but if they didn’t breed and couldn’t
breed, then they were separate species.

I’m thinking of – in some –
something people in the room

that are birdwatchers might know
of the Empidonax flycatchers are

extremely hard to tell apart in the hand.
Only really discernable by song.

And there’s – and, in fact, now the guys
tell me that they should be classified a

little bit differently on the basis of their
genetic – the gene sequence information.

This isn’t going to be a
very comprehensive answer

for all of the theories of
species that are out there now.

But basically,
a separate breeding unit

is still the important
aspect of species definition.

The Endangered Species Act does
define – I’m going to forget the term.

Something like special
breeding unit or special –

darn, I’m forgetting exactly –
that can be protected under

the Endangered Species Act if it’s –
even if it’s not a subspecies.

That is, even if it’s not morphologically
or phenologically or behaviorally distinct

from the rest of the population, if it’s,
for some reason, has a special status,

usually that status has to do
with its importance to maintaining

the population of that species,
that unit can be found –

be accorded protection under the
Endangered Species Act even though

it’s not even a subspecies. It’s a special
breeding unit, I think is what it’s called.

So some of the physiological and
behavioral definitions of a species are

superseded by other circumstances
within the Endangered Species Act.

That’s a tough question.
I’m not prepared to give you an

entire lecture that on that, but yeah.
Thank you.

- Well, this one’s sort of
related to that one. Sorry.

- Oh, geez.
- But why do we even have species?

Why isn’t everything just
continuously and gradually –

slight variations from everything else?
- That’s a very philosophical question.

I don’t know why we don’t.
Why we don’t? I don’t know why

we don’t – how we don’t probably
is an easier question to answer.

But, well, that’s a – I think
what happens in – the easy answer

is that what we see is that hybrids
are not fertile, in many cases.

You think of a mule.
And that kind of mule example

applies to reproduction
between many similar species.

The offspring are not fertile,
so the numbers of organisms

that form the gradient
just don’t persist.

Now, that’s a – that’s sort of effect
on the around why that is, you know,

might be a little more philosophical.
I don’t know. Yeah.

Why it should be that way,
I’m not quite sure.

Any other easy questions other there

- These are fun questions.
Any more questions tonight for John?

Well, I wanted to say I know you –
I know at least half of you

dealt with horrendous traffic.
I was aware of that.

I didn’t think I’d even get back here
on time to introduce John at 7:00.

I apologize, but I wanted to remind
you that our lectures are always recorded

and archived, and they’ll be online.
And so if you didn’t catch the very

beginning of the talk, it’ll be online.
It’ll usually take us a couple of days

to get it posted, but it’ll be there.
So I apologize.

But I am very grateful that you persisted
and did come out to join us tonight.

Thank you very much. And thank you,
John, for a wonderful talk.

- Thank you.

[ Applause ]

- So everybody go home and
get your bird books out and

go birding this weekend.

[ Silence ]