Rails, rails, and rails at the Natural History Muesum

I started my Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowship at the Natural History Museum in London/Tring three days ago, and have been busy with paperwork, introductions, meeting lovely new people, and being awestruck but the magnificent buildings, history, and collections. Here, I will spend the coming couple of years investigating the genomic underpinnings of the convergent evolution of flight loss in island rails.

Today, I had the privilege of looking at one of these rails that have not quite lost its flight ability yet, but is somewhere along the trajectory: a Galápagos Rail Laterallus spilonota collected by Charles Darwin himself. The timing could not have been better, as this was the same day that a new preprint came out on bioRxiv about the evolutionary history of the Galápagos Rail!

I have been lucky enough to join a collaboration headed by Jaime Chaves at SFSU, where I helped assemble mitochondrial genomes from century-old specimens from the California Academy of Sciences, and then used those for phylogenetic analyses. We confirm that the Galápagos Rail is the sister of the Black Rail L. jamaicensis on mainland North and South America, and that it colonized the Galápagos Islands about 1.2 million years ago. Sanger sequencing three genetic loci in modern samples shows that present-day populations on different islands display low genetic diversity, and somewhat surprisingly are not differentiated, indicating ongoing gene flow. So perhaps the Galápagos Rails still use their wings after all!

Part of Figure 1a from Chaves et al. (2020) shows a dated phylogeny based on mitochondrial genomes. Here, the Galápagos Rail Laterallus spilonota comes out as a sister to the Inaccessible Island Rail L. (formerly Atlantisia) rogersi, simply because the no mitochondrial genomes have been sequenced for the two other species in the clade—Black Rail L. jamaicensis and Dot-winged Crake L. (formerly Porzana) spiloptera. The illustrations in the figure from Chaves et al. (2020) is reproduced with permission from Lynx Edicions ©.

This is a great way to start on the collaboration with Jaime, who will continue to be involved in my FLIGHTLOSS project.

Read more about the Galápagos Rails at bioRxiv.

Songbird Showpiece of Passerine Power

I am very happy that the huge efforts into a book on the passerine radiation, that I was fortunate to take some part in, are nearing fruition.

Led by Jon Fjeldså, with co-editors Les Cristidis and Per GP Ericson, this monster book (estimated at 3 kg!) should adorn the book shelf or coffee table of any ornithologist or birder who cares about passerines. And who doesn’t? With >6,000 species, passerines make up 60% if avian diversity, and is a remarkable order that rapidly diversified and spread across all continents but Antarctica. They comprise a crazy diversity of plumage, vocalization, behavior, and ecology!

If you learned your birds some 10–20 years ago or earlier, you will know that lots of (annoying?) rearrangements and reclassifications have happened lately. This is because traditional taxonomy often sorted birds into large, ecologically-based groups, like warblers or finches, since the morphological differences were relatively small. Over the past couple of decades, DNA-based studies have revealed time and time again that these relationships were not what we thought. Here, we try to set the record straight, and propose a new classification and linear taxonomy based on the evolutionary history of passerines.

My contributions to the book is the back-bone phylogeny and chronology, represented in one chapter and one appendix. There are also many other thematic chapters, as well as a whole section going through all the passerine families. The book is illustrated with hundreds and hundreds of watercolor paintings by Jon Fjeldså, a reason on its own to get the book!

If you are interested, read more and perhaps place a discounted pre-order with Lynx Edicions by June 30th! The book is expected to come hot off the printers in mid-July. Enjoy!

Citation: Fjeldså J, Christidis L & Ericson PGP (eds). The largest avian radiation – the evolution of perching birds, or the order Passeriformes. Under production, Lynx Edicions (Barcelona). [My specific contributions are listed here.]

Flightless rails at the NHMUK

I am delighted to say that next step on my academic journey will take me to the Natural History Museum in London/Tring, UK, for a two-year project with the somewhat pompous title The genomic underpinnings of convergent evolution: Repeated loss of flight in island rails, the greatest avian colonizers. Starting this fall, I will be hosted by Alex Bond, Senior Curator in Charge of the amazing bird collections, and I will collaborate closely with Jaime Chaves at SFSU.

This project is made possible by the European Union, who has awarded me a Marie Skłodowska Curie fellowship.

Photo of the flightless Inaccessible Island Rail: Martim Melo (c). Photo of NHM London by Diliff, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 at http://tiny.cc/o8zojz.

Ornis Svecica fledges again

When I joined the editorial board of BirdLife Sweden‘s peer-reviewed ornithological journal Ornis Svecica in 2017, I had quite a few ideas of things that I thought could be improved. The journal has been published since 1991, and caters to academic researchers as well as non-professional ornithologists. It is a great resource with no publishing or article processing fees, but very little had changed since the founding of the journal. Late last year, the publisher made the decision to stop printing the journal, which forced a kick-start overhaul in order to find a new solution for the journal, where all material could be easily accessible online. I was glad to be appointed Managing Editor, and since then I have worked hard together with Editor-in-Chief Sören Svensson and the rest of the editorial board to achieve this goal. I am therefore pleased to say that Ornis Svecica relaunches as an open access, no fees, online only journal on the World Migratory Bird Day, May 11, 2019. Check out the site at http://os.birdlife.se, learn something about the foraging prerequisites of Ortolan Buntings or the range expansion of European Stonechats and see what you think of the new graphic profile, and read some more of my thoughts in this editorial. Any new articles will be published shortly after acceptance in a continuous publication model. I hope you will enjoy – and I hope you’ll consider submitting a contribution!

The cover of Ornis Svecica’s relaunch Volume 29 features a beautiful photo of an Ortolan Bunting by Ivan Sjögren (c).

How did the world’s smallest flightless bird end up on Inaccessible Island?

We recently published a paper in Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution on the origin and taxonomy of the Inaccessible Island Rail Atlantisia rogersi. The paper is available, with free access to anyone, until December 7, via this link. I summarized our findings in a Twitter thread, that I will share here. Photos, where nothing else is stated: Peter G. Ryan.

Continue reading

How can we make fieldwork less dangerous?

In June, I participated in the excellent workshop for Evolutionary Quantitative Genetics, generously supported by the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE). During a lecture Brian O’Meara mentioned Richard Conniff’s the Wall of the Dead, or the Memorial of Fallen Naturalists, and I just couldn’t let go of it. Reading the entries at the Wall of the Dead, I started wondering if certain fields of study were over-represented. It turned out that Talia Yuki Moore was also wondering things, and would like to draw conclusions from the tragic incidents in order to prevent future field work casualties.

We thus joined efforts, and contacted Richard Conniff about analyzing the material to better understand the circumstances and causes of scientist mortality during fieldwork. However, Conniff’s Wall of the Dead certainly is not exhaustive, and we are now therefore making a call for more information. Do you know of someone who is missing from this list? If so, please add their information to our database. Your contribution will help establish new safety standards for fieldwork and memorialize the contributions of those who gave their lives to further our understanding of the natural world.

Please contribute your information to our form, where you can also read more about the study, which is an IRB exempt study registered with the University of Michigan Institutional Review Board (#HUM00149801). We will forward all new entries to Richard Conniff’s Wall of the Dead. We will also account for all entries in upcoming publications, whether they will be included in our analyses or not (depending on whether they match certain criteria).

Also, please forward this call for information widely. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact me or Talia (taliaym /at umich.edu).

Me and Peter Ryan fighting our way through heavy mist and strong winds, during field work on Inaccessible Island in 2011. Photo (video still) (c) Martim Melo.

Me and Peter Ryan fighting our way through heavy mist and strong winds, during field work on Inaccessible Island in 2011. Photo (video still): (c) Martim Melo.

I, an Oregonian fish researcher

How did this happen to a bird researcher from Sweden? Well, evolutionary questions can be addressed in various study systems, and I will make use of the crazy syngnathid fish (seahorses, pipefish, and seadragons) to look into craniofacial development and evolution. I am happy to do this in the Cresko Lab at the Institute of Ecology and Evolution, University of Oregon. I started my three-year postdoc project in August 2017.

Cresko Lab sticklebacks showing development of lateral plates. Figure from Cresko (2008) Science: https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1165663.

[This post has been back-dated to reflect reality…]

The world’s largest canary hits the press

Our paper on the São Tomé grosbeak, summarized here and on the BOU blog, was finally published in the July issue of Ibis. This has rendered quite some interest in the press, with articles in National Geographic (Spain & Portugal), New Scientist, Science Daily, among many others. See the full list of articles in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Swedish, with links to most of them. Surprisingly (?), all this attention means that the short note in Ibis has climbed to the top 0.5% of the most highlighted research outputs that Altmetric tracks!

Our paper is dubbed a Classic!

Google Scholar has released a new feature that lists “Classic Papers: Articles That Have Stood The Test of Time”. I am very pleased to see that a paper that I was happy to co-author with late Niclas Jonzén is among the classics, as the fourth most cited publication about birds published in 2006.

In 2005 I published my first ever peer reviewed paper, which was an analysis of long-term bird ringing data from Ottenby Bird Observatory. The 2006 Science paper was, in some sense, triggered or inspired by this work, and here we expanded and used bird ringing data several Scandinavian bird observatories, in combination with data from Capri in Italy. We could show that migratory birds that spend their winter south of the Sahara responded even more strongly to the European winter weather (which determines the progression of the following spring), than did short-distance migrants. So after a cold and dry winter, spring came later, and migratory birds arrived later.

We already knew that the birds arrived later at the Scandinavian breeding grounds, but in this paper, we made use of the data from Capri, as we argued that the arrival to Italy should reflect the departure from sub-Saharan Africa. The rationale for this is that there isn’t much opportunity to spend time between the two regions, as the birds have to cross two major barriers – the Sahara desert and the Mediterranean Sea. Furthermore, even after accounting for the winter weather, there was a clear trend over time towards earlier arrival, which we argued reflects natural selection for earlier spring migration.

Read the classic paper, the preceding Ottenby paper, or check out Google Scholar’s top list for bird papers.