This squat little fellow is a Eurasian Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula), a pudgy bird also known as the Common Bullfinch and found throughout Europe and throughout most of Asia. While the first thing that might strike someone upon seeing this bird is its plump build and stocky beak and neck, researchers have recently been interested in the shape of a different feature of this bird.
Most songbird sperm seems to stick to one particular shape: pointed at the top, with a helix shape for the tail. This bullfinch is very different though, possibly the most different of any songbird tested so far. Eurasian Bullfinch sperm is fairly short and rounded, rather like the bird itself. There has been some suggestion that this unusual shape came from a lack of directional selection on sperm shape because of low sperm competition in this species. Basically, some scientists think that because multiple males aren’t always mating with the same females in this species, there hasn’t been anything weeding out less efficient sperm shapes. Male Eurasian Bullfinches simply drifted to the shape they have now, with nothing pushing for a particularly fast shape, like the normal helix structure. More data is needed before anything conclusive is decided though, so there’s an interesting question to be answered!
Last fall, Ornithology Collections Manager Paul Sweet was one of a team of Museum researchers who travelled to the island nation of Papua New Guinea on an Explore21 Expedition. Sweet and his colleagues Brett Benz and Chris Raxworthy will be discussing their fieldwork at the next SciCafe on Wednesday, March 4. (If you want to learn more before the talk, you can also read the team’s reports from the field here.) Sweet answered a few questions about his time in the field:
You were in the field for seven weeks on this expedition. How do you prepare for a trip like that?
I’ve led and participated in many expeditions, so I have a packing list ready. You have to be prepared with camping gear like your tent and sleeping bag, as well as equipment to capture and prepare specimens. There’s a visit to the doctor to get inoculations up to date, as well as prescriptions for malaria prophilaxis and antibiotics. But every trip is different. For instance, we knew this was going to be a very wet trip, so gear like a wet bag—a waterproof backpack that rolls closed—was key. And then there’s the research prep, like studying field guides and loading the vocalizations of birds we hope to encounter onto an iPod.
Was there anything you wish you had packed once you were there?
A better pair of hiking boots. I decided not to buy a new pair for this trip, because hiking boots take some time to break in. But the moisture in Papua New Guinea was such that the soles detached from my boots within the first day. So I was stuck hiking in “muck boots,” which are like heavy-duty rain boots. They’re not meant for the heavy hiking we were doing, and they cut my legs up pretty badly.
The hoatzin (Opisthocomus hoazin), also known as the stinkbird, or Canje pheasant, is a species of tropical bird found in swamps, riparian forests, and mangroves of the Amazon and the Orinoco Delta in South America. It is notable for having chicks that possess claws on two of their wing digits.
It is the only member of the genus Opisthocomus (Ancient Greek: “wearing long hair behind”, referring to its large crest), which in turn is the only extant genus in the family Opisthocomidae. The taxonomic position of this family has been greatly debated, and is still far from clear.