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".

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

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.