About Dan

As curator of vertebrate zoology, Dr. Brooks has more backbone(s) than anyone at the Museum! He is recognized internationally as the authority on Cracids - the most threatened family of birds in the Americas. With an active research program studying birds and mammals of Texas and the tropics, Brooks advises several grad students internationally. At HMNS, Brooks served as project manager of the world-renowned Frensley-Graham Hall of African Wildlife, overseeing building by an incredibly diverse array of talent by some 50 individuals. He has also created and/or served as curator for various traveling exhibits, including "Cracids: on Wings of Peril".

Working from zero: How exchange programs and scientific sleuthing fuel our Department of Vertebrate Zoology

Our collection focus in the Department of Vertebrate Zoology is dictated by both our exhibits and current areas of research. We are heavily vested in birds and mammals (and herps to a lesser extent) from Texas (yeehaw!), Africa and Latin America, as well as globally threatened/endangered species that transcend political boundaries.

Tightly correlated with this latter category are some of the exotic pheasants — sadly, rare in nature due to their capacity to feed hungry families in otherwise impoverished areas. The majority of the planet’s pheasants come from Asia — although it’s not a continent the collection focuses on per se, the fact that most pheasants are threatened/endangered makes them a targeted focal group for our collection.

However, Asian Bird Flu virus has all but shut down all export of birds from Asia! Consequently, we rely heavily on the captive stocks of zoos and private game breeders to build our synoptic series of pheasants. We have managed to build a respectable collection of most genera and at least 35 different species, although there are still a few species we are lacking, which can only be obtained through exchange programs with other museums. Such exchange programs are difficult to get off the ground for a number of primarily bureaucratic reasons.

Nevertheless, one of the many exciting developments in Vertebrate Zoology this year is a new exchange program with a large museum in the northeast. The Museum provides them with data-rich specimens that we already have represented in our collection, and they, in turn, provide us with study skins to help fill various gaps.

In terms of our current pheasant holdings, we currently have all species but one in the cases of junglefowl (Gallus), and peacock pheasants (Polyplectron), which are very different from peafowl (Pavo), and tragopans (Tragopan). In the latter case, we were fortunate to recently receive a beautiful adult male specimen of the Western Tragopan (Tragopan melanocephalus) through the above-mentioned exchange program.

Unfortunately, the specimen arrived with very little information. For example, was it collected from the wild or hatched in captivity? Although this seems trivial, knowing this information can mean the difference between a specimen that is valuable in studies dealing with biogeography and systematics, versus one that is only useful to make drawings from or is just something pretty to look at.  This is where detective work comes in handy (such as the sleuthing highlighted in my blog dealing with Col. Richard Meinertzhagen).

Between the tags on the specimen and data at the bottom of the online catalog, I was able to glean the following information: The specimen was cataloged on Oct. 3, 1908. Either the species or specimen was from northern India, obtained from the private collection of Tristam.

Western Tragopan

First I needed to determine if the specimen was collected from the wild or hatched in captivity. The late Jean Delacour was a fascinating individual who was very interested in a broad array of topics dealing with gamebirds. His family owned a large 14th-century French castle and estate in the quaint town of Cleres (just north of Rouen) which he inherited and used to raise and study exotic gamebirds. Ultimately, he donated the facility in full to the Paris Museum (I was fortunate to visit the Cleres facility for a meeting about 15 years ago).

Delacour was an authority on pheasants and wrote a first edition on these birds in the 1950s that included everything known at the time of its writing, including the status of different species in captivity. Delving into this source, I learned that about 50 Western Tragopans were imported from northern India between 1863-93, mostly to breeders and zoos in France, as well as the London Zoo.  Apparently they were very difficult to raise, but one French aviculturist managed to raise a limited number by the mid 1890s.

However, Delacour then indicates that every single Western Tragopan died out in captivity by 1900 and they were never imported again, so they never reached the U.S. So it seems intuitive that because our new specimen was cataloged in 1908, it would surely have to have been collected from the wild as it was collected eight years after the last Western Tragopan perished in captivity.

Simple enough, right? Not that simple, I’m afraid.

The British Collector Henry Baker Tristam died in 1906. It fits logically that the specimen then made its way to the institution we received it from, where it was cataloged in 1908. It is possible that Tristam had the bird in his possession for a while prior to his death, and it is therefore plausible that the bird could have been one of the captive imports that died out.

However, given that so few were bred in captivity, it is likely that this male was indeed collected in nature — even if it lived in captivity for a spell prior to its death. Reinforcing this, apparently very few, if any, of the birds in Tristam’s specimen collection were raised in captivity.

Have you done any scientific sleuthing lately?

Authenticating Peru’s Unique Unicorn

Over four decades ago, two well-known scientists, John Weske and John Terborgh were on expedition in central Peru when they rescued an unusual looking black, turkey-sized bird from the camp cook’s dinner prep table.  They suspected it to be a subspecies of an existing curassow from Bolivia called the Horned Curassow (Pauxi u. unicornis), and described it as the same in a peer-reviewed journal.

Sira Curassow (Pauxi koepckeae) in nature
Photo by Melvin Gastañaga

For many years the ‘Peruvian Horned Curassow (Pauxi unicornis koepckeae)’ was believed to be only a subspecies of the Bolivian form, until recent evidence showed otherwise.  The bird in question is a unique species endemic to Peru’s Sira mountain range, and thus was renamed the Sira Curassow (Pauxi koepckeae).

The fact the Peruvian form is separated at least 1000 km from the Bolivian species is a strong indicator that these are both distinct species.  Some of the parameters distinguishing the Sira Curassow from Bolivia’s Horned Curassow include thriving in different habitat at higher elevations, different behavioral patterns including the call, and of course different morphology.

In former posts I’ve explained my interest in Cracids – the rarest family of birds in the Americas, to which the Sira Curassow belongs.  While preparing Action Plans to prioritize and direct Cracid conservation efforts, whenever we came to status of the Peruvian Horned Curassow we just sort of sat around scratching our heads, as nobody definitively knew if it was a valid species.  I always had the hunch that it was valid, but without the proof of data, we’d just be telling a good story.

About a decade ago I put out a call for expeditions to locate the bird in nature to determine its status.  Melvin Gastañaga bravely answered the call, venturing solo into the Sira Mountains in search of ‘Peru’s unicorn’.  It was challenging work – of the several expeditions into the region the bird was not located during the first three, but Gastañaga remained tenacious, returning to find the bird in March 2005.

The work conditions were difficult, with several hours of hiking mountainous terrain just to locate the birds.  The efforts and results obtained by Melvin and her husband Ross MacLeod are nothing short of miraculous.  It goes without saying that they are the heroes in this story – the bird still would not be a species today if it wasn’t for them.  Indeed, weather conditions and other elements were less than cooperative, making the work all the more challenging.  I was honored to be a part of the new discovery, providing the morphological assessment.

Despite the exciting news, this new species is in serious trouble, with the threat of extinction looming over the Sira Curassow.  The range of the species is tiny and unfortunately the species is apparently being poached inside the reserve despite educational efforts.

Great Migrations – New Series Debuts Sunday on NatGeo

Perhaps one of the most compelling segments of National Geographic Channel’s upcoming “Great Migrations” series is the first one, “Born to Move” (premieres Sunday, November 7 on NGC).  In this segment the need to migrate (move) is ingrained in each featured animal as a means to survival.  Featured species include Christmas Island’s red crab (Gecarcoidea natalis), the far-traveling sperm whale (Physeter catodon), and the monarch butterfly’s (Danaus plexippus) annual journey across North America to a single site in central Mexico.  One of the more heartbreaking sagas involves a young wildebeest (Connochaetas taurinus) calf falling prey to Nile crocodiles (Crocodylus niloticus) as its mother watches on helplessly – nature can indeed be cruel, and unfortunately not every story of life terminates in a rainbow.

“Beastly River Battle”
A tragic and violent scene plays out as wildebeest herds attempt to cross a river teeming with crocs.

The footage brings to mind some components of the Frensley/Graham Hall of African Wildlife, which I helped build here at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. In the Okavango Delta diorama, where the theme is “water is life,” we have a plasma screen featuring natural history aspects of the Nile crocodile, some of which I filmed in Kenya’s Samburu River, including footage of the crocs using their group hunting strategy to predate a large impala (Aepyceros melampus) buck.  There is also other footage of crocs predating adult Thompson’s gazelles (Gazella thomsonii) and wildebeest, which is not as painful to watch as the crocs seizing an innocent calf as the mother looks on.

“Moving in Masses” – A zebra foal and his father catch up with the herd
on its way back to the rich green lands of the delta.

In other parts of the African Wildlife Hall we also feature the quintessential Serengeti migrating hoofed mammals, including plains zebra (Equus burchelli) and wildebeest.  Zebras are grazers that may congregate in great numbers in favorable areas.  The zebra’s pattern may serve two functions.  Firstly, when a herd of zebras are observed by a predator the black and white pattern breaks up the outline of individual animals, making it more difficult to pick out a target.  More recently, it has been discovered that the pattern plays a role in triggering and reinforcing herd behavior in the zebra.  For any given Zebra, being in a herd provides more eyes and ears to detect approaching predators; once those predators strike, it is relatively unlikely for any one zebra that it will be the one to be caught.  These advantages outweigh the disadvantage of having such non-camouflaged coloration.  You can witness the zebra’s migration from Botswana’s lush Okavango Delta to the Kalahari Desert in “Race to Survive” (premieres Sunday, November 14).

Great Migrations
Africa: Every spring in Botswana, hundreds of zebras leave the largest inland delta in the world on
a 150-mile slog into hell – a desert of salt and sand – so that their bodies can take in much-needed
minerals. Their stripes help protect them from predators as long as they stick together – blurring
their lines and making them indistinguishable as individual animals.
(Photo Credit: © John Conrad / CORBIS)

The ‘clown of the Serengeti’ or wildebeest, follows the wax and wane of the grasses that sustain them.  Their short-distance migration numbering in the hundreds of thousands is one of the great nature spectacles of our planet.  Harried by predators and the necessity of seeking fresh grazing grounds, the wildebeest manage to mate and give birth while they travel.  Eighty percent of the wildebeest calves (as many as 20,000) are born within several weeks at the start of the rainy seasons and, within minutes, are able to stand and run, traveling with the herd as they migrate.  The vast numbers of newborn far exceed the predator’s kills.  So even though it is heart-wrenching to watch the croc take the life of the wildebeest calf in “Born to Move,” several thousand will survive the journey.  Wildebeest are a keystone species in their habitat, one that if removed, causes the collapse of the community, which revolves around it.

Great Migrations
Africa: White-bearded wildebeest herd: Every year, more than a million wildebeest and
two hundred thousand zebras must chase the seasonal rains, in a 300-mile loop around
Tanzania and Kenya. (Photo Credit: © Anup Shah)

Overall, birds migrate much further than mammals.  For example, wildebeest in East Africa are famous for their annual migration across the Serengeti, which is actually less than 500 miles.  The Arctic Tern in contrast flies 22,000 miles each year on a route that takes it from the Arctic to Antarctic and back again.  When I think of the title of the segment “Born to Move,” I think of many species of birds that are really capable of moving (migrating) very far distances.  This very aspect is highlighted in the African Wildlife Hall’s Saharan Desert diorama where the theme is “perilous migrations”.

As you can imagine, migration has many challenges; the Saharan desert for example is the greatest single obstacle for birds that migrate back and forth between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa.  Covering most of the northern third of the African continent, it takes a songbird 35 to 40 hours to fly across this vast desert.  Many birds fly the desert at night to avoid the intense heat, but there are many other perils birds must face for which they have no solution in their behavioral bag of tricks: traps set by humans, exotic predators such as house cats in unnatural concentrations, tower and window obstructions, environmental extremes such as drought brought on by global climate change, and destroyed habitat every step of the way.  Indeed, migratory birds in the Americas face many of the same perils.

Great Migrations
Nile crocodile with seized Impala buck (horn protruding from water)
in Kenya’s Samburu River, Ethiopian Biome (photo by Daniel M. Brooks/HMNS)

The birds featured in the “perilous migrations” diorama take advantage of the Northern Hemisphere’s annual explosion of food resources, then head south into Africa as fall approaches.  Such migrations offer the advantage of allowing a bird to remain in ‘food-friendly’ seasons.  Whether crossing the Old World or the Americas, a fundamental challenge for migrants is maintaining energy reserves – if a bird runs out of fuel it will perish.  As a result, habitat loss is the greatest threat worldwide for migrants.  Not only must they have suitable habitat in both their nesting and wintering ranges, but along the path in between as well.  During migration many species will stop to ‘refuel’ even in some of the most unlikely environments, such as the Saharan desert.

Featured in the Saharan desert diorama are two birds with contrasting migratory strategies: the lesser grey shrike (Lanius minor) and the grasshopper warbler (Locustella naevia).  Like many other African birds, the shrike nests far to the north in Europe, necessitating a Sahara crossing during migration until it reaches its wintering grounds in southern Africa.  Then it crosses once more for the return trip to Europe.  The warbler migrates a shorter distance through the Saharan desert to stop in central (rather than southern) Africa each winter.

Great Migrations premieres Sunday, Nov. 7 on National Geographic Channel – tune in to this multi-part series learn more about migrations throughout the world; and come by the Museum to view these fascinating animals up close in the Frensley/Graham Hall of African Wildlife.

New Bontebok Mount in African Hall

The rotating case in Phase II of the Frensley-Graham Hall of African Wildlife had a new mount installed in early July – a Bontebok (Damaliscus p. pygargus), with the skin donated by USF&WS. 

 Photo of a Bontebok in Bontebok National Park
(Winfried Bruenken)

This small African antelope is in the Alcelaphine Tribe, which includes Impala, Hartebeest and Wildebeest.  It is a subspecies of Damaliscus pygargus; the other form is the closely related Blesbok (Damaliscus pygargus phillipsi).  Both forms were restricted to the southern regions of South Africa, and the fragments of land they inhabited ultimately resulted in their extinction within their traditional range.  However, today both are commercially ranched in suitable numbers throughout Africa to the point where neither form is considered threatened with extinction in any form.  One of these ranches was effectively turned into Bontebok National Park, and contains 200-250 Bontebok.

Bonteboks are extremely fast.  When pressed they can easily outrun a predator, and calves only a week old are capable of outrunning a rider on horseback.  One strategy they have is running against the wind, with their head down such that their noses are nearly touching the ground. 

If you haven’t had a chance to see the new Bontebok on display yet, go on up and have a looksy!