18 November 2009

Saving Darwin's Muse: Update! With data!

Remember Darwin's mockingbirds? Last year I was all excited about getting to extract DNA from the specimens Darwin and Fitzroy collected on Floreana in Galápagos in 1835. Well the paper reporting the results of the DNA study will be published today in Royal Society's Biology Letters and it's already been covered by The Times, the BBC and Conservation Magazine's Journal Watch (so far... I will add more here if and when they appear). The Natural History Museum press release is here.

It's an exciting day, to see this project published, and I'm delighted about the coverage, not least about how it can highlight the bird's conservation status and efforts underway to protect its long-term survival.

The only thing about this that makes me a little bit uncomfortable is that these articles focus a lot on me, when, in fact, as I said in my first post on the topic, I am but a tiny player in a large, multi-layered research and conservation project. Particular mention must be made of Paquita Hoeck, a PhD student in Lukas Keller's research group at the Zoological Museum of the University of Zurich, who is first author on the paper and is doing a much larger genetic analysis of Galápagos mockingbirds which includes hundreds of specimens from Gardner-by-Floreana and Champion – both historic specimens and birds they captured live and sampled on site over the last few years. Galápagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Foundation are developing a conservation programme for Floreana, and the Bird Group at The Natural History Museum in Tring, where the mockingbird specimens are held, were instrumental in providing access to the specimens and dissecting the tissue samples.

So what did I do then? As the NHM's Darwin200 science coordinator I facilitated the inclusion of the 1835 specimens in the project, I helped write the paper, and in terms of the research itself I did DNA extractions and microsatellite amplification reactions on the NHM specimens in parallel with Paquita to ensure that the data generated in Zurich were indeed from the two historic specimens and not the result of contamination.

Update: the latest piece, in Conservation Magazine's Journal Watch, interviews Lukas Keller. Hurrah!

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