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Interview: Ben Winger – On Expeditions and the Importance of Museum Collections

I interviewed Ben, a fellow bird nerd and real deal Ornithologist, this fall about exciting expeditions he’s taken in the name of science.  Enjoy!

Ben Winger is a graduate student in the Committee on Evolutionary Biology at the University of Chicago and the Division of Birds of the Field Museum of Natural History.  He received his undergraduate degree from Cornell in 2007 and in 2008 embarked on an ornithological expedition to a poorly known region of Peru with two of his undergraduate colleagues (read more about this 2008 trip here).  In 2010, after finishing his first year of graduate school, he visited a different area of Peru on an expedition with colleagues from the Field Museum Division of Birds and the Centro de Ornitologia y Biodiversidad in Lima.


Brendan McGarry: Tell me a little about your research interests and how they tie into your recent trip.

Ben Winger: Broadly, I am interested in the speciation of birds, as well as how their geographic ranges have evolved through time.  I am currently beginning a project that I hope will provide insight into the formation of the incredible diversity of birds found in the Andes, as well how speciation in birds occurs more generally. On this trip in 2010, we set out to northern Peru to collect genetic samples for this and other projects related to bird speciation in South America. The trip was also focused on collecting specimens that will be useful for other researchers in the future.

BM: Does your research mainly consist of collecting or banding or conducting observational transects.  What is the makeup of your data collection? How did this most recent expedition compare to your previous trip in 2008? How would a typical day of work go in each trip?

BW: On the 2008 Cornell trip to Peru, our time was split between conducting species inventories through observational transects (i.e., birding or point-counts), mist-netting and audio-recording, and collecting a small number of voucher specimens that represented the most important new records for the area. A typical day would involve audio-recording in the dawn and dusk hours, observational surveys in the morning, and mist-netting throughout the day. In the slow part of the afternoon we prepared specimens if any had been collected, and made sure that our observations and audio-recordings were thoroughly logged in our notebooks.

On the 2010 trip, we were focused more on specimen collection, but I also did some audio-recording for the Macaulay Library at Cornell and our observations will be entered into eBird as well. During collection-focused trips like this, obtaining and preparing specimens is a full-time task.  Much more time is spent huddled in camp preparing the specimens and diligently keeping an eye on the collection to make sure it is not damaged by insects or humidity.  A significant amount of time is also spent keeping track of what we have collected and making decisions about which species and individuals to collect, so that we do not collect too many individuals of any species.  These decisions involve adhering to the terms of our government-issued permits, but equally important they involve calling on knowledge about the rarity or conservation status of certain species and the representation that a species may or may not have in museum collections worldwide.  Finally, we also spend time collecting the endo- and ecto-parasites on each specimen, as well as samples of pathogens like avian malaria and flu, to further knowledge of host-parasite evolution and avian diseases.

The difference between these two trips is that in 2008, the goal was to conduct the first avian inventory of a very remote region. Ornithologists had never visited this area, the Gran Pajonal of Peru, so we were gathering baseline data on the presence and absence of bird species. It was important that we covered as much ground as we could and surveyed as many different habitats as possible, so we spent less time collecting specimens and more time making observations. In 2010 we were working in an area that was relatively better known ornithologically, but still not nearly as well known as any location in North America. For example, very few tissue samples for DNA studies had been collected in this area, and the lower elevation cloud forest had scarcely been visited by ornithologists since the early 1900s.  The focus of the 2010 trip was on collecting samples that will be useful for a myriad of studies on avian evolution and ecology, as well as increasing knowledge of the distribution of Andean birds, rather than documenting all the species in a particular region as I did in 2008.  There were many similarities between both trips, however: both were in remote regions of the Andes that required several days of trekking to access, and both relied on support staff from local communities to help construct camps, cut trails and guide the teams through the mountainous jungle.

BM: Your interests are deeply rooted in biogeography, what sort of expectations do you have for your future research? Do you foresee conservation benefits or simply broadening our knowledge base on speciation, biogeography, and spatial movements? Admittedly these areas of research often do directly benefit conservation.

BW: I hope that my research will contribute to our understanding of how the astounding avian diversity we see throughout the world has evolved. Furthermore, the specimens we collect and the data we gather are not only useful for research projects like mine that are currently ongoing, but the material is available, archived in museums and databases, for any researcher or conservation worker in the future. Although it may not be superficially obvious, this type of research, and specimen collection in general, does have an influence on conservation. For example, there are many highly endemic species in the world that are actually fairly difficult to distinguish from more common, widespread species.  Without the efforts of museum workers, many of these forms would go unnoticed, undescribed and, consequently, unprotected. Our understanding of global biodiversity, even in a group of animals as well known as birds, is still far from complete. Therefore, the continued collection of baseline data on the existence of and variation within species in the form of specimen collections is an invaluable aspect of documenting and protecting life on earth. It may appear ironic that collecting birds can benefit their conservation, but the very small numbers of birds that are collected each year for scientific purposes do not have an impact on the long-term health of populations.  Rather, responsible collecting increases our knowledge of the biodiversity we are trying to protect and helps to inform conservation priorities.

BM: I’m fairly certain both you and I are convinced that museum collecting is vital for a historical knowledge of literally every area of natural history. However, what would your explanation of the importance be to someone unconvinced, particularly pertaining to you own work? Could your and others’ research be conducted without current collection efforts? Some people have questions about the necessity of banding birds, let alone something like shooting birds that they’d possibly consider archaic.

BW: As technology improves, we are increasingly able to do more and more without collecting specimens: DNA can be sequenced from blood or feather samples instead of muscle tissue; plumage variation can be captured with a photograph; audio recordings can be used to document the presence of a species in a reserve.  These practices are all valuable, positive advancements.  They allow scientists to study the genetics of highly endangered species that could be imperiled by collecting, birders to document rarities or even make taxonomic discoveries, and ornithologists to survey nature reserves where collecting is not permitted. However, these technological improvements do not cast collecting into the dark ages.  Rather, they emphasize the amount of invaluable information that can be obtained from a single specimen (skin, skeleton, fluid, spreadwing) that is catalogued in the public domain with associated data (geographical information, tissue samples, stomach contents, pathogens, parasites, and vocal recordings to name a few examples).  Photographs can deceive through distortion of light or post-processing, and blood samples collected by scientists without a voucher specimen do not need to be archived in a collection, and thus are not always available for future scientific research beyond the initial purpose of the investigator.  A specimen on the other hand, properly cared for and made accessible in a museum collection, will continue to benefit future inquiry in ways we cannot yet imagine. The specimen and the natural history collection have as much, if not more, value in science and society than they ever have. Particularly as each day habitats and the species therein are disappearing faster than we can protect them and as we discover new and innovative things that we can learn from specimens, I believe that obtaining a record of life on earth in the form of museum collections is a worthwhile human endeavor and one that is vitally important in 2010.

BM: Living in a remote field location is hard enough in a temperate climate; what are the major challenges to your health and productivity in the tropics?

BW: The tropics are a challenging but extremely rewarding place to work. Parasites, digestive tract infections, monotonous field food, biting insects and other dangerous creatures, and the constant possibility for political unrest in the host country are par for the course.  Tropical expeditions also tend to involve long, difficult overland hikes through degraded habitat to access pristine forest, or an inordinate amount of time sitting in uncomfortable river boats, and of course lots of time spent in damp clothes and molding sleeping bags. For me, the psychological and emotional challenges of missing loved ones back home is always harder to deal with than the physical, bacterial or climatic difficulties which, in retrospect, seem like mere nuisances. However, the sense of discovery that only comes in the tropics, and the possibility to explore and work in remote, untrammeled places where few have ever set foot makes it all worth it.


BM: When you aren’t out in the field, what are you spending your time on? When are you headed back next?

BW: These days I’m in Chicago designing a plan for my PhD thesis, and getting started in the molecular laboratory at the Field Museum. I will defend my dissertation proposal to my PhD committee in the spring, and I have plans to get back into the field in the summer of 2011.  I try to go birding on the Chicago lakefront as much as time allows (documenting my sightings in eBird, of course!), as it is a fantastic place to witness the spectacle of bird migration.  I should mention that we do not collect birds in the Chicago area, but every day during migration hundreds of birds are killed when they collide with skyscrapers and other buildings. These birds are picked up by a team of volunteers that scours the downtown area every morning during migration. Birds that are still alive are brought to an animal rehab center, and those that have died are brought to the Field Museum, where they prepared as skins or skeletons. The collection that the Field Museum has maintained of thousands of these “tower-kill” birds has not only increased our knowledge of migration patterns in the Chicago area, but it has been crucial in the documentation of the tremendous avian mortality caused by skyscrapers.  Data from this collection has been an important factor in convincing building owners around Chicago to turn out their lights at night to help reduce bird mortality.  Read more about it here.

Thanks Ben – we’ll all look forward to hearing more from you in the future!


  1. Luke Owens

    Good interview Brendan. The University of Chicago sure has a lot of interesting international bird research going on.


    I’m so glad to see that Ben is continuing his important work in ornithology!

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