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".

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!

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