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".

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!

Ghost Bird – soon showing at a museum near you!

Search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker
Creative Commons License photo credit: judy_breck

As massive trees were unsustainably logged for the timber trade, the last stable Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) populations began declining during the 1930’s as their vital nest trees disappeared, as noted by Arthur Allen, James Tanner and George Kellogg, ‘Ivorybill’ scientists who actively studied the species beginning over 75 years ago. (You can listen to a recording of the bird taken in 1935 by Arthur Allen by clicking here.) With a couple of possible unconfirmed sightings in Cuba and the southeastern United States over the last couple of decades, there were many individuals who wanted desperately to believe this bird still existed.  Then a brief and controversial video clip was captured by David Luneau in 2004 in the Cache River Basin of Arkansas.  After a quiescent period of serious planning, the scientists, led by Cornell Lab of Ornithology Director John Fitzpatrick, announced in a press conference that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker has been rediscovered.  The events that followed that press conference are numerous and represent a fascinating ribbon weaving American history, culture, raging debate, and the true power of one word – hope.

Ghost Bird is a timely documentary that highlights the fascinating yet highly controversial issue revolving around the rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.  Following an official selection of film festivals in Toronto, San Francisco, New York City, London and Rome, Ghost Bird has been honored with the 2009 Golden Eagle and the Southern Soul of Independent Film Award.  Clearly, this special film is revered by audiences with varying interests, not strictly birdwatchers and Ornithologists.

It is with much enthusiasm that I announce this movie playing here at HMNS on Thursday, August 19 — the only scheduled viewing in east Texas and surrounding areas.  For more information about the film you can watch the trailer below. To learn more about the showing at HMNS click here (if it is sold out, check back because we will try to offer additional show times). 

Can’t see the video? Click here.

Here is what the critics are saying about Ghost Bird:

“Comic, mesmerizing and deeply poignant… reminiscent of the work of Errol Morris.” 
- Brian Johnson, Senior Entertainment Writer, Maclean’s

“Excellent, informative and balanced, while also being very entertaining.” 
- Dr. James Rising, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology,
University of Toronto and American Ornithologist’s Union Fellow

“Beautifully crafted, heartbreaking, ironic and infuriating… It’s a stunner.”
- Michael Fox, NPR San Francisco
 
“It’s a fascinating story, with all sorts of twists and turns… the most compelling aspect of the film is the message it carries about bird conservation and our essential role in stewarding the birds and habitats that are in our control.”             
                – Graham Chisholm, Executive Director, California Audubon

“With the Pixies piped in to the background of the trailer, you know this is going to be one memorable documentary.”
 - Dr. Dan Brooks, Curator of Vertebrate Zoology, Houston Museum of Natural Science

A Rare Gull, an Innocent Query, and a Colossal Fraud

While the vast majority of my posts have dealt with adventures from the trenches (of fieldwork), I’ve recently been involved in a simple research project that ended up being quite interesting from the perspective of museum history.

Interns Tim McSweeny (L) and Raoel Sheik (R)
preparing study specimens

In prior blogs I’ve posted how we obtain some rather unusual specimens from Wildlife Rehabilitators.  One of our principle ‘Rehabbers’ is Dana Simon who has brought us a number of sea birds and raptors, among other goodies.  Today’s story began in the late Summer of 2007, when Dana was brought a ‘different’ looking gull that she was unable to identify to species.  If Dana’s charges perish, she is kind enough to save them for us in a large freezer until she has enough worth making a trip in for.  Now you crazy kids don’t try this at home, Dana runs a fully permitted and licensed facility.

Nearly a year after the gull was initially found dead of an unknown ilnness on Surfside, it was brought to us here at the museum.  It was prepared here as a study skin by one of my interns, Tim McSweeny.  Once we get several study skins together, ready to be catalogued into the collection, I will identify some of the more challenging individuals as part of a Curator’s duties.  This gull was rather difficult to identify, but after much comparison with other species, I was able to determine that it was a female Sabine’s Gull (Xema sabini) in non-breeding plumage.  It was definitely worth writing up as a published note, as there were few (if any) specimens of Sabine’s Gull from the Texas Coast.  Although sight records do exist, a museum voucher specimen provides irrefutable evidence of the species’ occurrence.

I then contacted Dr. Keith Arnold at Texas A&M University.  Keith was my Major Professor for my Ph.D. work over a decade ago, and we often collaborate on anything I publish involving Texas birds.  ‘Dr. A,’ as his prior students call him, is a walking encyclopedia of past and present records of rare birds in our beloved state.  Although there are 625 species accepted as regularly occurring in Texas, others such as Sabine’s Gull have been taken off the review list because the number of reports are so few and far between, with fewer than four reports per year over a ten year average.  Keith told me there had been one specimen prior to this one and it was housed in the Natural History Museum’s (NHM) collection in England.

Although the NHM proper is located in London, the approximately 750,000 bird specimens are housed in a huge multi-leveled building approximately an hour northwest of London in the quaint market town of Tring in Hertfordhsire.  I know this because I visited there nearly 15 years ago when collecting data for my dissertation from various museums around the globe.  At the time I visited Tring, I was pleased to meet the acquaintance of a kind gentleman by the name of Dr. Robert Prŷs-Jones.  Robert was kind enough to help me navigate through the hundreds of cabinets to find what I was after during my visit.  We hit it off just fine, so I was hoping he wouldn’t mind if I bugged him to gather some information about the Sabine’s Gull specimen in his care at the collection at Tring.

Well, I began to get a little nervous when I didn’t receive an immediate reply from Robert with the news.  I then received an enthusiastic and lengthy reply from him a couple of weeks later in early October 2008.  He did indeed remember me and explained the reason it took him a couple of weeks to reply is because although he had located the specimen, it proved a bit baffling and he had to do some research to figure it all out.

The HMNS specimen of Sabine’s Gull (Xema sabini)

Robert had been working with various colleagues such as Dr. Pam Rasmussen on a scandalous affair that involved fraud and the theft of specimens from NHM’s collection, among other places.  The culprit was one Col. Richard Meinertzhagen, who was a giant in the field of Ornithological expedition and discovery during his heyday in the early 1900’s.  At that time Meinertzhagen was well known as a respected Ornithologist with a large private collection of approximately 20,000 specimens.  His falsification of specimens and their respective tags that contained important data was first published on by Clancey (1984) although Knox (1993) was the first to publish a serious analysis of the scandal.  Later on, during research to write a guide to birds of southern Asia, Pam realized that Meinertzhagen’s fraud was actually much more extensive than originally discovered.  It was then that Pam collaborated with Robert to systematically describe the extent of his fraudulent ways, using the specimens they were able to uncover through careful research.

Apparently the case of the Sabine’s Gull at NHM was one of the more blatant examples of the Meinertzhagen scandal.  To quote part of Robert’s reply to me:
[N]ormally he covered his tracks slightly better by removing the original collector’s label and changing dates/localities; it is also interesting to have proof that he might change “collector” details in a case where he was not claiming to have collected the specimen himself.  This case is so blatant that either he didn’t realise the rarity of the species in Texas or he’s putting two fingers (one in the US?!) up to the ornithological community and saying “[I]f you cannot catch me on this, what can you do?”

So alas, Robert came to some important conclusions, that this gull in the NHM collection was one of the more blatant of many examples of fraud by the late Richard Meinertzhagen.  He kindly recommended we collaborate to publish the information, which now has been accomplished, and if you’re so inclined, you can read it here.

- DB, 1/14/10


Post-script: Kind thanks to Robert Prŷs-Jones, Pam Rasmussen and Keith Arnold for reading and providing comments on the text.

New varmits in Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife

Dan Brooks, Ph.D.
Curator of Vertebrate Zoology, HMNS

When I first arrived at the museum in 1999, I ‘inherited’ the Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife, and the Frensley Hall of African Wildlife.  Well the latter was fully updated a few years ago with generous support from Robert and Annie Graham.  But the Farish Hall is another story – it will wait a few years to receive a full makeover, as part of the HMNS’s exciting expansion.

Anyway, back to the new halls I ‘inherited’, as I made the initial rounds as a young Curator 11 years ago, I realized there were some truly rare (e.g., Black Bear), endangered (e.g., Attwater’s Prairie Chicken), and sadly in some cases extinct (e.g., Red Wolf) species in Farish Hall.  Despite this fact, some rather common Texas mammals were missing – most noticeable were the Virginia Opossum and the Striped Skunk.

So I bided my time, wondering how long it would take until the Docents noticed this overlooked fact and began to bug me to do something about it.  Well, for those of you keeping score, it took about six or seven years.  But alas, as of 23 November 2009, I’m thrilled to report that we now have representation of both the Virginia Opossum and the Striped Skunk in the Piney Woods and Carnivore dioramas, respectively.  Following are some natural history notes.

Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis)

skunk

This is the most common species of skunk in our region.  Few people realize that there are at least 10 species of skunks distributed throughout the New World.  In North America, there are a couple of species each of the striped (Mephitis) group and spotted (Spilogale) group, with the hog-nosed skunk (Conepatus) dispersing southward, where it radiates into several species in South America.

Skunks are members of the Carnivoran Family, Mustelidae. This includes otters, badgers, weasels and other similar forms.  Like many medium-sized Carnivorans, the skunk has a strong musk gland.  So strong in fact, that the skunk has a well-known reputation for its scent gland, which produces a musky odor.  This odor is not uncommon when skunks are involved in roadway mortalities.  They can also voluntarily shoot the scent directly at whatever varmint (including a person) is bothering them.  Just like rattlesnakes sounding off their warning before striking, a skunk will stamp its feet and flag it’s tail before spraying.

Skunks are omnivorous, eating a wide variety of food, including cannibalized carrion – it’s not unusual to find more than one road mortality at a give site, since live skunks will forage upon road killed skunks, then becoming a victim of vehicle mortality themselves.

possum

Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana)

Of the more than 300 species of Marsupials extant today, 230 are found Australia and surrounding islands, and 85 are endemic to the New World.  Of these, only one occurs in the United States and Canada – the Virginia Opossum, or simply ‘Possum’ as it’s known in this region.

Like all marsupials, the young are not as fully developed as other mammals when born.  They claw their way to the mother’s pouch, where they develop for a couple of months.  As the young get older they will ride on the mother’s back, and there can be several young per litter.

Opossum
Creative Commons License photo credit: graftedno1

To ward off predators, they can open their mouth very wide and display their vast array of teeth – 50 teeth in all!  They may hiss and make noise as well, but the famous saying ‘playing possum’ comes from this marsupial’s ability to feign death by going limp.  Possums are omnivorous, eating a wide variety of food, and it’s not unusual to find them rummaging through a garbage can.  Their sense of smell is well developed to compensate their poor eyesight.  Although their tail is prehensile, it’s not strong enough to support their weight, such as a New World monkey’s prehensile tail for example.  They do use the tail for balance however.

Range across seven biomes to explore the entire continent of Africa in the Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife, a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.