Category Archives: Ornithology

Journey into the Heart of Nicaragua: Parque Nacional Saslaya

In northeastern Nicaragua there is a rainforest-clad mountain that has seldom been visited by scientists, or anyone for that matter. It is called Parque Nacional (PN) Saslaya, and it is one of the last places in Central America where the Jaguar is still king, where undisturbed primary rainforest extends along an elevational gradient of over 1000 m, culminating in elfin cloud forest at the mountain’s highest reaches.

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Tropical forests once covered Nicaragua like a blanket, but modern satellite imagery reveals a country that was largely denuded of its forest cover in the last century. Not surprisingly, the highest quality forest tracts that remain are found in the North and South Caribbean Autonomous Regions (RACN and RACS, respectively), where infrastructure is underdeveloped (relative to the western half of the country) and about 300,000 indigenous people, descendants of the Pre-Colombian Rama, Mayagna, and Miskitu cultures, still persist in rural communities.

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PN Saslaya straddles the border of RACN and Jinotega, and it stands out like the proverbial sore thumb in satellite imagery. Several settlements were created along its boundaries in the years after the Nicaraguan Revolution (1978–79) and subsequent Contra War (1980s), but there are no indigenous people in the park. The people here, and in the nearby town of Siuna, are miners, cattle ranchers, and farmers. A recent wave of monoculture teak and coffee plantations in the area has been rapidly homogenizing the landscape. The only evidence of the extensive humid forests that once grew there, are large epiphytes still clinging to the upper branches of the few (now solitary) old growth trees that were spared the axe on account of their singular beauty or location. The saving grace of PN Saslaya has been its inaccessibility, and for now it remains one of the last strongholds of primeval rainforest in Central America.

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In April 2017, we mounted an expedition to PN Saslaya, to collect the first specimens of birds and their associated parasites from the region. Our team included, representing the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University (ANSP), myself and colleague Therese Catanach (right in above pic), a post-doctoral researcher who studies the genomes of bird lice and their hosts; representing the University of Kansas, veteran field ornithologist Mark Robbins (center), collections manager at the University of Kansas (KU) Biodiversity Institute, and KU graduate student Jack Hruska (left), who grew up in Nicaragua and has broad interests in bird systematics, biogeography and behavior. In Nicaragua, we teamed up with ornithologist and tour guide Alexander Acosta Anton, rented a 4×4 pickup truck, and headed off across the country in search of adventure, which we found.

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The only scientific surveys of the park’s avifauna to date, are those of Liliana Chavarria Duriaux and Georges Duriaux, intrepid Nicaraguan ornithologists who made nine (!) expeditions into PN Saslaya over the last decade, literally cutting a trail to the cloud forest at 1400m with machetes! They have produced an impressive checklist of over 300 species known to inhabit the park (L. C. and G. Duriaux, pers. comm.), but to date no physical specimens had been collected for genetic and other analyses. We collected data-rich specimens that include frozen tissues for genetic analysis, blood slides (fixed in ethanol) for studying haemosporidians like avian malaria, ectoparasites like lice, ticks and mites (preserved in ethanol), over 400 audio recordings, and numerous census surveys (available on eBird.org), in addition to the study skins prepared for the museum collections at ANSP and KU. These data will survive for hundreds of years, and enable us to assess the unique value of the biodiversity of PN Saslaya, and in so doing, effectively advocate for its conservation.

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Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus swainsoni). This species was common around the Río Labú camp from 8–16 April. Several individuals were heard singing, but at much lower volume than during their breeding season in North America.

PN Saslaya is physically and logistically difficult to access, and because there is a history of land-use conflicts (typically involving people illegally removing resources from the park), all visitors are required to have a security escort. It took us several days, and multiple trips to both the Siuna police station and military base (El Batallón Ecológico), to make the necessary arrangements. Our plan was to establish a base camp on the west bank of the Río Labú, about 6 hours hike into the park from the nearest road, where we would work for 10 days (9 nights). In addition to our military escort, we would hire a team of people from the nearby community of Rosa Grande, to porter our equipment to base camp, and arrange for them to return again on the 9th day to assist with our extraction. We stuck to the plan, and it was successful.

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The hike from Rosa Grande was hot and humid, ~3.5 km of fincas, crop fields, and scrubby secondary growth forest, to the park border at 320 m elevation. Already the topography of the trail ahead was evident: a lot of rapid gains and losses in elevation, as the single-file footpath meandered its way through the ravines cut but the myriad tributaries that fed the Río Labú. As we continued into the park, the forest transitioned into primary humid rainforest. Howler monkeys called out in the distance as we paused at the park boundary, and a Lesser Greenlet (Pachysylvia decurtata) sang from the sub-canopy. Therese and I watched a jaguarundi (Puma yagouaroundi) cross a log about 15 m away, while we paused on the trail for a moment to catch our breath. It clearly knew that we were there, but it did not seem concerned by our presence. So few people venture that far into the park each year, that it is conceivable that it was that individual’s first encounter with a human.

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White-whiskered Puffbird (Malacoptila panamensis)

Our team of eight soldiers were on orders to keep us safe, and probably to make sure that we did not get ourselves into any trouble. They took that charge very seriously, sending scouts out ahead of our group, and leaving one behind to ensure that we weren’t flanked. When we finally arrived at the site of our base camp, as the sun was setting and the forest interior already quite dim, we scrambled to get our tents set up before dark. Beginning that night, the soldiers began a 24/7 patrol of the camp, taking turns on the night shift duty. I occasionally left my tent in the middle of the night (~0200) to relieve myself, and couldn’t resist the urge to joke with the patrol, asking him whether he had heard any funny noises. During the day, the soldiers toiled about camp, building thatch-roof huts to cover their hammocks, and trying to get a radio antenna high enough in the tree tops to establish contact with the base. One of the soldiers captured a baby Central American Agouti (Dasyprocta punctata), and kept it for a pet for a couple days until it escaped.

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To be continued…

A closer look at the wing of Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus swainsoni) in First Basic plumage

Like other migratory Catharus species, juvenile Swainson’s Thrushes (Catharus ustulatus swainsoni) molt into a ‘First Basic’ plumage at the end of their first summer, which they wear for one year before attaining their ‘Adult Basic’ plumage. The partial molt that results in First Basic plumage includes some or all of the median coverts (the little olive feathers above the numbered row), and up to five of the (inner) greater coverts, which are numbered 1–9 in the image. In this case, the bird molted only one greater covert: #1, the fresh olive covert without a buffy tip. The retained juvenile coverts (2–9) are paler and more brown, and numbers 2–6 end with a buffy tip. This is called a molt limit, and it helps us to figure out the age of a bird. For all the juicy details of molt limits in North American passerines, check out Peter Pyle’s Identification Guide to North American Birds, Part 1, 1997.

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This bird died in a window collision in Montgomery Co., PA, in late September 2016. After taking the photo, I prepared the specimen for the Ornithology Collection at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. Legend: primaries (P1–8); secondaries (S1–9). The 9th and reduced 10th primaries are not visible in the photo.

Smooth-billed Ani — in Philadelphia!

Like most birders, Philadelphians get excited about a rare bird. With over 250 years of bird records from Philadelphia, the birthplace of American ornithology, there are very few species that have been detected in the city only once—the rarest of the rare.

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ANSP 24271. Ornithology Department, Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University (Photo: M. Halley)

One of the most mind-boggling records is actually not well known by birders today—a Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophaga ani) was collected in the 1850s by John Krider, apparently on an island in the Delaware River near Kensington, Philadelphia. Today, and during Krider’s time as well (Baird 1860), the nearest breeding ground of this Neotropical cuckoo-relative (Cuculidae) is in southern Florida. Otherwise, the species is a widely distributed breeder in the tropical and subtropical savannas of the Caribbean, Central and South America.

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ANSP 24271, label verbatim: “Shot on Peters Is. Delaware Riv. opp. Kensington Pa. J Krider Coll.” (Photo by M. Halley)

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Closeup of Charles Ellet Jr.’s (1843) map of Philadelphia, showing the location of Petty’s Island in the Delaware River.

However, the island opposite Kensington is called Petty Island today (not Peters Island, which is actually in the Schuylkill River near Montgomery Dr.), and during Krider’s time it was called Petty’s Island — so something here is amiss. To confuse things further, in Krider’s (1879:16–17) published account there is no mention of the island, and it actually implies that the bird was collected in the expansive meadows of South Philadelphia (i.e., Passyunk, Moyamensing), a habitat that would later be consumed by urban development: “The Ani is a southern bird. I shot one specimen in the month of September, in the meadows below the built-up part of the City of Philadelphia. It was flying in company with a flock of rusty Gracles [probably Common Grackle Quiscalus quiscala, or perhaps Rusty Blackbird Euphagus carolinus]; the specimen is now in the Academy of Natural Sciences.”

So the precise locality where the bird was collected is uncertain, because Krider’s (1879) account disagrees with the information on the (not original) specimen label. Nevertheless, it was evidently collected in one of the marshes along the Delaware River in Philadelphia.

Spencer Baird (1860:73) wrote: “A Crotophaga, killed near Philadelphia, and now in the collection of the Philadelphia Academy, appears to be a typical C. ani (as described by Burmeister) in the smoothness of the bill and other peculiarities. It is decidedly smaller than rugirostris, the culmen straight at its highest point, the anterior extremities of this nearly straight portion anterior to the nostril. The colors are, however, almost precisely the same with those of rugirostris. Length, 12 inches: wing, 6.10; tail, 7.75; tarsus, 1.25; chord of culmen, 1.15.”

References
Baird, S. F. 1860. The birds of North America: the descriptions of species based chiefly on the collections in the Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co.
Krider, J. 1879. Forty years notes of a field ornithologist. Philadelphia: Joseph H. Weston.

Audubon and the Academy of Natural Sciences: It’s complicated.

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Oil portrait of Audubon by John Syme, 1826. Source: Wikipedia.

In the halls of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University you will occasionally hear it mentioned, in a slightly boastful way, that the Academy was an “original subscriber” to John James Audubon’s masterpiece The Birds of America. This statement is technically true, because the Academy became a subscriber shortly after the work was published, probably around 1831, but it is also disingenuous. In 1824, when Audubon came to the Academy in search of an engraver and/or publisher, he was turned away and later rejected for membership. As the story is told, Audubon drummed up some animosity with George Ord and engraver Alexander Lawson, who had worked with the late Alexander Wilson and were at the time financially invested in publishing a second edition of Wilson’s American Ornithology. It may be that Audubon’s extraordinary talent was perceived as threatening to the success of that venture, or perhaps his paintings were simply too difficult to engrave but Lawson was too proud to admit it—either way, Audubon met significant resistance to his plan.

Reuben Haines III, corresponding secretary of the Academy, took a liking to Audubon and invited him to his country estate called Wyck, which is now engulfed by urban development in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. Audubon stayed at Wyck on July 25th, and the next day traveled to his teenage home Mill Grove, in Haines’s carriage. That evening they dined with the famous clockmaker Isaiah Lukens at Mill Grove, which was at that time under the ownership of Mr. Wetherill, who had bought the property from the Audubons many years prior.

At the next meeting of the Academy, on the evening of July 27, Audubon was nominated for corresponding membership by Haines, Lukens, and the French naturalist Charles-Alexandre Lesueur. But his nomination was “black-balled” (rejected) in a vote on August 31. In a recent facebook post, Academy archivist Jennifer Vess described the balloting procedure that was used:

“After the founders’ meeting, it was decreed that every new member must be nominated by two active members, his name read before the group and voted on at the next business meeting. A single black marble in the voting box meant the nominee had been rejected. It was presumed that the prospective member knew nothing of his nomination, so that the insult of being rejected would not be known by him. If black-balled, the nomination blank was destroyed to remove any record of the outcome of the election.”

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Original record of nomination of “J. J. Audubon, Natchez Correspondent,” on July 27, 1824, by C. A. Lesueur, R. Haines, and I. Lukens. Notably, Audubon was the only nominee rejected by vote (“X”) on August 31. Courtesy of the Library and Archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences, collection 115.

It is curious that Audubon’s rejection was not destroyed as was the custom, and there is no evidence of any reason why—so cue the speculations. Two relevant facts are that Audubon was no longer in Philadelphia when the vote was cast, and that he was stressed about his failure to find support in America. In a recently discovered letter from Audubon to Haines dated December 25, 1825, the desperate ornithologist pleaded for help one last time:

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A wooden ballot box like those used in the 1824 vote – perhaps the same one. (Image courtesy of the Library & Archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences, coll. 115)

“Now my dear Mr Haines I must change my subject.—I must touch the only thing that ever vibrated sorrow to my heart.—I must leave America.—And you, and a few more friends.—I must go and seek far from my few connections, a […] purse for my long labours with as little hope to obtain this abroad as I am sure never to possess it in this my beloved country.—I assure you I count every day that are to [elapse] between this and the awfull moment when the sails will be spread that will waft off the vessel bearing my hopes, much like he who consigned to unmerited punishment hopes and yet dreads that another world will not be better to him than the one he is about to leave for ever.—With an allmost despairing heart I shall leave America early this ensuing spring, and now bid you my farewell.—Yes it is my farewell indeed for unless a success scarce expected should take place, I never will review this happy continent, will have to abandon my long acquired habits of watching nature at work and will droop moreso amongst the dreg of the world as it is called.” (Halley 2015, ‘The Heart of Audubon‘)

Audubon later published a more subdued synopsis of the events, practically bereft of emotion, in Ornithological Biography (1831: xiv; bracketed names mine):

“America being my country, and the principal pleasures of my life having been obtained there, I prepared to leave it with deep sorrow, after in vain trying to publish my Illustrations in the United States. In Philadelphia, Wilson’s principal engraver [Lawson], amongst others [Ord], gave it as his opinion to my friends [Bonaparte, Haines, Lesueur], that my drawings could never be engraved. In New York, other difficulties presented themselves, which determined me to carry my collections to Europe.”

Years later, after The Birds of America was a sensational hit, on September 27, 1831, Audubon’s name was again moved to nomination for Academy membership, and this time the vote passed despite Ord’s continuing enmity. He became a corresponding member on October 25th, 1831, but sadly, his friend and confidante Reuben Haines missed the vote, having died of a laudanum overdose six days earlier…but that is another story.

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Original record of Audubon’s second (and successful) nomination, on Sept 27, 1831, the numerous signatories, and the election on October 25th, 1831. Courtesy of the Library & Archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences, collection 115.

Thanks to Jennifer Vess and the staff of the Library & Archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences, and Bert Filemyr of the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club for insightful comments that improved historical accuracy.

“Winter” specimens of Swainson’s Thrush in eastern North America

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ANSP193361 — C. u. swainsoni, collected by J.H. Weber on 3/3/1904. Photo: Matthew R. Halley

I came across a specimen of Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus swainsoni) in the ornithology collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences (ANSP193361) that was collected by J. H. Weber in Fort Lee, New Jersey on March 3, 1904! This sparked my curiosity because this taxon, considered a subspecies by most authorities but a species by the Brazilians (Piacentini et al. 2015), spends the winter in South America and does not typically arrive in North America until April. This set me on a brief search for other North American “winter” specimens of C. u. swainsoni. For the purpose of my investigation, I was hesitant to rely on sight records, because it is easy to misidentify these thrushes in the field (trust me), and eastern Hermit Thrushes C. guttatus faxoni are normal winter residents in these regions. For these reasons, I wanted hard evidence, and a search of major specimen collections did the trick.

I looked for specimens collected during November through March. A query on VertNet.org returned 800 specimen records from that time period, of which 24 were collected in North America east of the Mississippi River. Of those, 9 were erroneous or dubious (e.g., several records had the date 1/1, the default of some databases when a date field is left blank). After separating the wheat from the chaff, I managed to uncover 15 (apparently) legitimate “winter” records, which I plotted alongside an eBird chart compiled from three “Bird Conservation Regions” that cover a large portion of the ‘transient zone’, i.e., in between the breeding and wintering grounds of C. u. swainsoni. Interestingly, the specimen that started my search (ANSP193361) was actually one of three taken by J. H. Weber in Fort Lee, New Jersey—20% of the “winter” C. u. swainsoni specimens taken in eastern North America were found at the same place by the same guy!

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The orange curves in the figure show the annual cycle (in total # of birds detected) from the perspective of birders in the ‘transient zone’. There is a sharp decline in autumn (far right of the graph), and detections typically cease by the end of October. The birds are then absent for the next five months (they are “on holiday” in South America). Then, the spring migration brings a rapid increase in detections in early- and mid-April, as Swainson’s Thrushes migrate northward to their breeding grounds.

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C. u. swainsoni in the ‘transient zone’. Photo: Matthew R. Halley.

Three of the “winter” specimens were collected in early November, and can easily be attributed to late departures, and not overwintering birds (MCZ338962, UMMZ234592, UWBM86964). To my knowledge, there have been no specimens collected during December, and only one legitimate record from January, a specimen collected in Brown Co., Wisconsin (FMNH351309); and that specimen was collected in late January (the 21st). Two specimens from mid- and late-February were collected in Frederick Co., Maryland (UWBM 38236), and New Haven Co., Connecticut (YPM ORN 002630), respectively. The remaining 9 specimens were taken in March, one month before the expected arrival of the species in North America, and so can be explained as early arrivals. Indeed, given the distribution of these “winter” specimens, clustered near the tails of the eBird distributions, there is very little to suggest that any of them were actually over-wintering individuals. Rather, they seem to be aberrant individuals with early or late departure or arrival dates, outliers way out on the tail ends of the normal distribution, but still a part of that distribution. However much I might like to think one of these Swainson’s Thrush specimens was an over-wintering bird, the null hypothesis is that they are just super late/early migrants (i.e., a migrant with wacky timing seems more plausible than a bird that ceased to migrate altogether). At present, the weight of the evidence is not enough to reject the null.

So no—sorry to get you excited, but at the present moment there is no evidence of a Swainson’s Thrush wintering in North America. Many thanks to the folks at ebird.org and VertNet.org, and to the many collectors, preparators, and curators of the collections.

[UPDATE, 12/21/2016: I recently came across an article in Cassinia (62:65) in which Keith Russell reported a Swainson’s Thrush at Cape May Courthouse, NJ, on December 24, 1985! Identification was corroborated by Bob Ridgley. This indeed is a good candidate for an individual *actually* overwintering in this region, but I do not know if it was seen in subsequent weeks.]

Witmer Stone was born 150 years ago today.

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Witmer Stone in his youth. (www.archives.upenn.edu)

If you watch birds in southeast Pennsylvania or New Jersey, chances are you have heard of Witmer Stone (1866–1939), naturalist, historian of science, co-founder of the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club (DVOC) and first editor of its journal Cassinia. Among other accomplishments, Stone was also President of the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) from 1920–23 and Editor of its journal The Auk from 1912–36. He played a critical role in restoring the bird collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia during the 1890s, after it had been neglected for years following the death of John Cassin (1813–69), and he added to the collection by joining Academy expeditions to Bermuda, Cuba, and Mexico, among other places.

Recently, I was elected to Stone’s old position, Editor of the DVOC and Cassinia, and I have been using data from Stone’s bird collections in my research at the Academy. A few months ago, while rummaging through a box of old items that were going to be discarded, I found and saved a treasure—an autographed reprint of Stone’s 1890 article ‘Birds collected in Yucatan and southern Mexico’, from the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. At the top of the pamphlet reads “Mr Serrill with the compliments of Witmer Stone”. Evidently the reprint was a gift from Stone to William J. Serrill (?–1952), who had joined the DVOC in 1891 and was an active member (and later Fellow) of the club for 61 years.

In early 1890, Stone accompanied malacologist Frank C. Baker (1867–1942) and geologist Angelo Heilprin (1853–1907) on an Academy expedition to the Yucatan, by way of Cuba. Stone was a young man—24 years old—just beginning his scientific career. Incidentally, I was the same age (23-24) when I joined my first field expedition, to study manakins (Manacus spp.) in western Panama with Adam Stein, so I can empathize a bit with Stone at this period of his life. He must have been very excited when this paper came out in the Proceedings. The ornithological community of Philadelphia was in the midst of a Renaissance, largely due to Stone’s prolific energy—the DVOC was founded that same year, and Stone mobilized a crew of birders to monitor the spring and fall migrations at multiple sites around the city. I think that Stone would be proud that today we are continuing his legacy of citizen science, and that the DVOC is still a thriving organization where professional and avocational ornithologists mingle to celebrate and share their mutual passion for birds. Happy birthday Dr. Stone — your legacy continues!

For a lot more about Witmer Stone, check out Scott McConnell’s excellent biography Witmer Stone: The Fascination of Nature.

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Genetic sampling of Townsend’s 1835 type specimens of Catharus

In 1834, pioneer naturalists Thomas Nuttall (1786–1859) and John Kirk Townsend (1809–51) ventured westward with the second expedition of Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth (1802–56), across the Rocky Mountains and eventually to the mouth of the Columbia River. The trip was a huge success, and Townsend discovered numerous bird species that were previously unknown to science. In 1836, Townsend opted to venture farther west to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), and so entrusted his bird collection to Nuttall, who returned with it to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. There, the specimens were eagerly awaited by John James Audubon (1785–1851), who was preparing the final plates for The Birds of America:

“Dr Townsend’s collection was at Philadelphia; my anxiety to examine his specimens was extreme…Having obtained access to the collection I turned over and over the new and rare species but he [Townsend] was absent at Fort Vancouver on the shores of the Columbia River, Thomas Nuttall had not yet come from Boston and loud murmurs were uttered by the soidisant friends of science, who objected to my seeing, much less portraying and describing, these valuable relics of birds, many of which had not yet been introduced into our fauna.” Audubon (1838:xi)

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Paralectotype of Catharus guttatus nanus, collected by Townsend and described by Audubon (1839)

Among the specimens in the collection were two thrushes new to science, that we now know as Catharus ustulatus Nuttall (i.e., Swainson’s Thrush) and Catharus guttatus nanus Audubon (now considered a subspecies of Hermit Thrush). The prepared specimens are still in the Academy collection. See my previous post about the discovery and description of the C. ustulatus type.

Today, I harvested a tiny sample of skin from the C. ustulatus holotype, and a paralectotype of C. g. nanus—both collected by Townsend during the Wyeth expedition. The samples will be prepared and submitted for DNA sequencing—genetic data that will be included in my dissertation work on the systematics, evolution, and taxonomy of the genus Catharus. These two type specimens, which were examined 180 years ago by Townsend, Nuttall, and Audubon, will now be used again to clarify the ancestry and taxonomy of these species. I hope that, if they were alive today, Townsend and the rest would approve!

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Collecting skin tissue for DNA sequencing from the holotype of Catharus ustulatus (ANSP #23644)—collected by Townsend and described by Nuttall (1840). Courtesy of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. Photo: Steve Miller.