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?

Killer crocs and cute koalas: Going to extremes with Australian wildlife

Australian wildlife is full of surprises. I first discovered that crocodiles look a lot like alligators, but with a very different attitude toward humans. A trip to the museum’s George Observatory in Brazos Bend State Park often features an encounter with an alligator sunning on your path or floating like a log at the water’s edge in Creekfield Lake. You’re warned to keep dogs on leashes and leave the gator alone, but no fences restrain you or the gator.

Australian crocodiles are more aggressive, and unfortunately recognize humans as food. Fencing confines all the crocodiles at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventure near Cairns, Australia. And a boat ride in crocodile-infested waters requires all hands inside the boat with Plexiglas windows on all sides.

CIMG6146An alligator show often features the handler taping the gator’s mouth shut and actually sitting on the patient gator. In contrast, a crocodile show is billed as a “Crocodile Attack Show.” It usually features only one crocodile that must be distracted when the keeper dashes across an open area to the protected spot for the feeding. There’s nothing leisurely about a crocodile jumping for food or initiating a death roll when the food is attached to a rope that the keeper does not release.

CIMG6110After grabbing the bait, we watched a croc rolling under the water, a technique designed to disorient and drown its prey. This “death roll” allows a croc to feast on large animals at its own pace. As the late Steve Irwin said, “The crocodile death roll is potentially the most powerful killing mechanism on Earth.”

CIMG6121Koalas are as cute as crocs are deadly. Koalas are marsupials native to coastal regions of Australia. Like all marsupial babies, baby koalas are called “joeys.” At birth, a koala joey is the size of a jellybean! It has no hair, no ears, and is blind. Joeys crawl into their mother’s pouch immediately after birth and stay there for about six months. At Hartley’s Crocodile Adventure, we petted the soft fur of a female koala and watched an 11-month-old Joey still clinging to its mother’s back. Back in Houston, our only marsupial is the lowly opossum, which just doesn’t compare.

Shark Week turns 25: Our six ways to celebrate

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, guys and gals: Shark Week is back.

After falling deep down the wormhole of the Summer Olympics (or as we like to call it, the Swimmer Olympics), it’s nice to have something else sleek and muscular to watch in the water.

So in honor of this horrific holiday season of sorts, here are six ways to celebrate Shark Week, starting Sunday, August 12:

1. Make a ridiculous watermelon sculpture, and try not to scare the bejeezus out of your kids.

Shark Week 2012

2. Imagine if sharks could fly and never sleep again.

Shark Week 2012

3. Imagine sharks had movie star teeth and feel better.

Shark Week 2012

4. Have mixed emotions about this photo:

Shark Week 2012

5. Be glad this guy’s extinct:

Megalodon Jaws

6. Learn more about the fiercest shark that ever lived and rent Mega Shark Versus CrocosaurusJust kidding — visit our new Hall of Paleontology to see a cast jaw, spectacular paleo art by Julius Csotonyi, and a compelling display of the jaw with the prey it’s poised to consume.

Happy Shark Week!

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.