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Birds of the Past Reveal Genetic Secrets

Paquita examines samples of archived bird specimens.

Paquita examines samples of archived bird specimens.

The smell in the collections room immediately brings back very good memories. When I first visited the California Academy of Sciences in 2007, their collection was temporarily housed in a different facility. Now I am standing in a room of a spectacular modern building in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. The location may be different, but the smell hasn’t changed. Ten thousands of bird and mammal specimens from all over the world are stored here.

My mission is also almost the same. I am here for the Galápagos mockingbirds, the birds that have been the center of my scientific interest for many years now. Moe Flannery, the collections manager, guides us through the narrow hallway lined with massive cabinets. I am accompanied by my friend and colleague Tandora Grant. We need to find a very specific drawer, one that carries the tag ‘Mimus parvulus’ and contains the specimens of the two Galápagos mockingbird subspecies ‘wenmani’ and ‘hulli’. Moe successfully locates a few ‘Mimus parvulus’ drawers, but as we look through the nametags of the specimens inside, we read ‘personatus’, ‘barringtoni’, ‘bauri’… Not the right ones. I am still delighted by their sight; it feels a little bit like seeing old friends.

When I came here in 2007 as a Ph.D. student, I spent a few days with these birds, working on 349 of them. Some of them look different from each other. Millennia of living on isolated islands have shaped these birds into different species and subspecies – like the Darwin’s finches that have become a textbook example in evolutionary biology. But it was actually the mockingbirds’ distinct look on different islands that gave Charles Darwin his first vital clue for his theory of speciation under natural selection.

Tandora helps sleuth out  genetic mysteries of the birds of the Galapagos.

Tandora helps sleuth out genetic mysteries of the birds of the Galapagos.

The birds we are looking at, lined up side-by-side, belly-up and legs crossed, are all well over 100 years old. The nametag on their legs specifies their origin and species’ name. Because the taxonomic knowledge has changed since their collection, many actually carry two or three tags with updated information. We can’t see ‘hulli’ or ‘wenmani’ anywhere. “Every once in a while we get unlucky,” Moe says before she takes off to get a tall ladder on wheels that resembles a portable staircase. She climbs to the very top and pulls out the top drawer. Back down on safe ground she asks, “Is Culpepper what you’re looking for?” I feel immediately embarrassed—I’ve forgotten the islands’ old names! Like the birds, the islands were renamed several times over the last century. Tandora grabs her iPhone and Google’s Culpepper. Yes, it is Darwin Island, and birds from Wenman, now called Wolf Island, lie in the same drawer. We found what we came for!

Darwin and Wolf islands are the most remote of the Galápagos Islands, separated from the rest of the archipelago by a stretch of almost 100 miles of open ocean. For a somewhat flight-lazy bird, like the mockingbirds, such vast open water with no other islands in sight is probably quite an effective deterrent to emigration. That’s at least my hypothesis and the reason why these specimens, now neatly placed in front of us, are of so much interest to me.

Galapagos mockingbird species from 100 years ago awaiting sampling.

Galapagos mockingbird species from 100 years ago awaiting sampling.

I’ve studied these birds for many years now. I spent many months in the Galápagos and visited almost all islands to collect blood samples from the different mockingbird species and populations. A little drop of blood from a couple of dozen birds from each island was all I needed to let them tell me about their interisland traveling habits. The birds’ genetic information gave me insights into their population sizes and their relationship between different islands. The analysis of the historic specimens that I sampled at the Academy in 2007 added an interesting timely perspective; it revealed which island populations have changed the most over the last century.

I take out my sample collection material. These specimens from Darwin and Wolf escaped my scalpel blade last time. At the time, it was uncertain whether I would be able to obtain contemporary samples of their subspecies. Now their time has come. I pick up the first specimen and cut a tiny piece of tissue sample from one of the toe pads. One specimen down! The spot on the foot where the sample was taken is barely visible. Minimal damage to the specimen, but lots of new information to be gained.

The historic samples we’ve just collected are the first step in the discovery of the genetic secrets of these two remote populations. Together with collaborators, I am planning to climb onto Darwin and Wolf islands early next year to collect blood samples from living birds. The islands are infamous for their inaccessibility, but we’ll have an excellent team at hand. Let the adventure begin!

By Paquita Hoeck, Ph.D., San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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Garden Fest Insect House Tweet-up

The crew from last year's Festival of Flight tweet-up

UPDATE: The tweet-up is now full. Stay tuned for the next one!

Sure, we’re known for our animal collection, but did you know we’re also a world renowned botanical garden with over 700,000 rare and exotic plants? That’s why our next tweet-up (if you don’t know what a tweet-up is, educate yourself) at the Zoo will be on May 12 at 9:30 a.m. to celebrate our annual Garden Festival. However, unlike last year’s Garden Festival tweet-up, which was all about the plants, this year’s tweet-up is focusing on those cute little critters you might find in your garden at home: bugs!

Our very passionate insect keepers, Paige Howorth and Kelli Walker, will lead guests on a VIP tour of the Insect House in the Children’s Zoo, and they’ll bring out a few crazy bugs for guests to see up close. Unfortunately, our Insect House has a limited capacity, so we can only allow 30 tweeps to join us. If you want in (Zoo admission required), tweet these exact words:

I want to make friends w/bugs @ the #GardenFest tweet-up at the @sandiegozoo on May 12

The first 30 people who tweet the above will get a direct message from us with an invite to the tweet-up. If you’re not one of the first 30, you’ll be put on the waiting list. Please note, Zoo admission is required. If you want to bring guests, let us know and we’ll try to make accommodations depending on space available, but no promises. Our apologies for the limitations, but we’re excited to introduce 30 lucky tweeps to our creepy crawly friends. Now hurry and get tweeting!

Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous post, A Story of Love at the Zoo.

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Get Invited to Festival of Flight Tweet-up

Guests of our Reptilemania tweet-up got up close with our Galápagos tortoises and took home a free snake plush!

UPDATE: All spots for our Festival of Flight tweet-up have been filled! Follow us on twitter to be part of the next tweet-up.

If you follow us on Twitter, you know we like to hook up our followers with free stuff, but by far the best perk is our tweet-ups. Tweet-ups are special on-grounds meet-ups just for our social media followers, and they usually involve up-close animal interactions and presentations not available to other guests. For our Reptilemania tweet-up, guests got to touch one of our slithery animal ambassadors, feed our Galápagos tortoises, and take home a free snake plush. For our Koalapalooza tweet-up we tracked “koalas” (the plush kind) using the same equipment that our researchers use in the field, and got up close with a kookaburra and, of course, a koala.

We’ve also had tweet-ups at the Safari Park. During Butterfly Jungle, our tweet-up guests were granted access to the event through a closed-off side entrance, avoiding the line and enjoying a private presentation of a few creepy crawlies by the Park’s insect keeper. The Park’s Cheetah Run tweet-up was even sweeter. It offered guests the full VIP treatment, allowing them to watch the run from our special VIP viewing zone and meet a cheetah up close, which is something we normally charge $40 extra for!

Guests of our Cheetah Run tweet-up got the full VIP treatment

We also hold raffles and give away free stuff at most of our tweet-ups, with prizes ranging from animal plushes to tickets for super-awesome behind-the-scenes experiences. For example, at our most recent #AnimalStars tweet-up, we raffled off five panda adoption packages and one grand prize of four Backstage Pass tickets. Check out this stellar blog and video for more on our last tweet-up.

The best part about our tweet-ups is that they’re FREE with admission. If you’re a member, consider them a perk of your membership. As you may know, Festival of Flight is coming November 10 through 13, 2011. We had a tweet-up for last year’s event involving a guided tour of the Scripps’ and Owens’ aviaries by one of our bird keepers and up-close bird viewing, but we wanted to offer something even better this year. That’s why on Saturday, November 12, at 10 a.m., we’re letting you loose (with supervision of course) in our Backstage Pass flamingo zone for some up-close flamingo fun! You’ll also enjoy presentations of a few other feathered friends by our expert Backstage Pass trainers…but there’s a catch. Because of the limited space in our flamingo zone, we can only invite 23 guests to join us for this tweet-up. So how do you get an invite? Listen close. Make sure you’re able and willing to attend on Saturday, November 12, at 10 a.m. (Zoo admission required). Then follow us on twitter and tweet these exact words:

I want to go to the @sandiegozoo #FestOfFlight tweet-up for some #FlamingoFun!

The first 23 people who tweet the above will get a direct message from us with an invite to the tweet-up. If you want to bring a guest or your kids, let us know and we’ll try to make accommodations depending on space available, but no promises. We apologize for the limited space, but we’re super excited to introduce you to our beautiful winged friends. Now hurry and get tweeting!

Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous post, Facebook Winner joins us in the Field.