Science AMA Series: Hello, I’m David Steadman, curator of ornithology— the science of birds—at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida. My research uses fossils and living species to help us understand how animals exist (or go extinct) on tropical islands through time.

Abstract

Hi, Reddit! I’m David Steadman, and I study the evolution, conservation, and extinction of tropical birds. An overriding theme of my work is to learn how animals survive through time on tropical islands. A high percentage of island species have gone extinct over the last few thousand years, and I’m interested in helping prevent further extinction by looking for clues in fossils that could help us keep the species that we have today. On some islands, we can replace plants and animals that have died out with their closest living relatives to help keep the ecosystem healthy.

I work with a lot of different scientists, including biologists, geologists, geographers, archaeologists, and paleontologists. My own training is broad, with a bachelor’s degree in biology from Edinboro State College, a master’s in zoology from the University of Florida, and a Ph.D. in geology from the University of Arizona. One of the advantages of working at the Florida Museum is that scientists here are encouraged to work across many disciplines. So, even though I am a bird expert, I get to study many different kinds of animals, not to mention the plant communities that make up their habitats. For example, we recently found a tortoise fossil in the Bahamas that gave us the first sample of ancient DNA from an extinct tropical species. The bone chemistry of this extinct tortoise gives us a pretty good idea of what it ate.

My work takes me to some pretty neat places: Caribbean islands, Latin America, Africa, Australia, and more than 100 islands in the South Pacific. I like looking for new fossil sites, exploring poorly-explored places, and looking for birds that are described as rare but might actually be common—we just haven’t looked hard enough!

Also, I'm one of the authors of the paper discussed here: https://www.reddit.com/r/science/comments/5thlg6/divers_pull_1000_year_old_tortoise_skeleton_from/

I'll be back at noon EST to answer your questions- AMA!

Hi, everybody, I'm here a bit early and will be answering questions until 1 pm. AMA!

Signing off for now, but I'll do my best to get back on around 6 pm and answer a few more questions. This has been fun. Thanks for your interest!

Hi, I'm back for a while to answer some more questions the best I can.

OK, I'm circling the drain. Once again, thanks for keeping me on my toes. Buenas noches!

Hello and thank you so much for being here to speak with us today.

We've done something similar with wolves in Yellowstone in the past; replacing them with a close sub-species (Northern Rocky Mountains wolf (Canis lupus irremotus) vs the Mackenzie Valley wolf (Canis lupus occidentalis) though not the original to keep the ecosystem healthy. While I understand the difference between a species and sub-species is minimal, I'm glad to see it seems to be working well so far.

Island ecosystems seem to be much more fragile however. How difficult is it choosing the correct fill in species? It's easy for non-natives to run amok.

Can you share some your successes and failures of these projects?

You're doing fascinating work and now more than ever conservation should be on our minds. Thank you again for sharing with us today.

FillsYourNiche

We would consider only closely related species, carefully monitored. We'd like to start with something slow like tortoises.

We've had some success with megapodes (mound-building birds that lay their eggs in rotting vegetation and warm volcanic sand) in Tonga. The Tongan megapode was wiped out by people on all but one island in Tonga. If you're only on one island, one hurricane could wipe this out. We established a second population on another remote island. Having species on more islands decreases their vulnerability.


what's your favourite bird?

wonwont

It's the Elegant Trogon, which I enjoy seeing each year in the remote canyons of northern Mexico. It's got spectacular colors, unusual behavior, and it's a good indicator of healthy habitat. If the habitat is wrecked, there are no Trogons. Trogons feed only on the wing. If there's a fruit on a tree, it hovers to eat the fruit. Similarly, if there's an insect, it also hovers to pluck it and eat it. They have a low metabolic rate. They're almost like a sloth!


Hi, David. I know about your great work in some Polynesian Islands.

As a Rapanui, I have always wondered... how do you explain the existence of land-based birds like parrots and owls in the archaeological record of incredibly remote islands like mine?

Seems unlikely these birds can fly that far away. Isn't it possible some of them were used by Polynesian navigators to find land, just like vikings did with ravens?

Thank you very much.

Tupahotu

My only trip to Easter Island was 25 years ago. I miss the place!

Dispersal of land birds to remote islands is very rare, but does take place over long timeframes.

Polynesians used seabirds for navigation by observing them. More than a thousand years ago, your wonderful island of Rapanui had more species of nesting seabirds than any other! We identified bones of more species of birds there than on any other island in the world. If we could get rid of the rats (an invasive species), the seabirds might come back.


Why do tropical birds tend to be such much more colorful than other kinds?

StreamLined256

There's no simple answer, honestly. This is a topic that has been studied and debated for 200 years. One thing to keep in mind is that birds see color differently than we do. They have four cones on their retina and can see a wider spectrum of colors than mammals can. They can even see UV. Some birds we regard as dull might not be dull to other birds.


This may have already been asked, so I apologize in advance, but as an aspiring ecologist/wildlife biologist/ornithologist (who's graduating HS this year), do you have any tips or tricks about turning my passion into a degree and a lifestyle? This has been the first ornithology AMA I've seen on r/science before.

Also, here are some more questions:

-What islands would you want to travel most to, and why? Have you traveled to Tristan Da Cunha and its surrounding islands? (like Inaccessible Island?)

-What has been your greatest surprise when searching for a rare or extinct species?

-Which extinct island species would you love to see around again? (Avian or non-avian)

-What was your proudest/most satisfying moment?

Thank you so much for this AMA!

Saphine_

Try to find a project involving wildlife where you could get a summer job or volunteer. Making contacts with biologists or other professionals is a huge first step. We all started out this way. Keep your eyes and ears open, not just for birds, but for educational opportunities, especially those involving long-term research with birds or other animals. Finally, don't be afraid at all to be challenged in what you do. That's how we learn. Small failures are okay.

As for islands, I would love to visit the Falkland Islands some day. Being sub-Antarctic, the flora and fauna would be really refreshing for someone like me who is used to tropical islands.

In 1997, I was very pleasantly surprised at how common a species of flightless rail, called Woodford's Rail, was on the island of Isabel in the Solomon Islands. This species had been thought to be endangered, if not extinct, but we saw and heard them every day. They were very well known to the locals, who considered them to be garden pests. This is one of the reasons why I love working with local people on remote islands. They were born and raised there and know their island so much better than a visiting scientist.

By far, my proudest moment was when the government of the Bahamas declared an area where I'd been working as a new national park. Several other scientists and I had been studying the plants and animals, both living and extinct, of that area. The Bahamian government recognized how important this area was for nature. Maybe my grandchildren will go there some day.


Since your time at the Florida Museum of Natural History, there have been a ton of changes. It is clearly a world class research and collegiate teaching institution. However, it still does not seem to garner attention statewide for teaching all Floridians or for a museum.

What would you suggest to us Floridians to change to take full advantage of the museum? (Or am I off base that the museum's mission is not to include youth/community outside of Gainesville)

Edit: Thank you for your time. Delivery visits to the museum and related departments while working for Academic Technology on campus, shaped many of my interests--so thank you to you and your colleagues! And of course, Go Gators!

Anaxcepheus

We do our best, everyday, to reach people across the state, the nation and the world. We are a teaching and research institution where everyone is welcome. Floridians have the easiest access to volunteer opportunities in our labs and out in the field, as well as special summer camps for kids—all great ways to great way to get involved.


May not be your neck of the woods, but is there any correlation between the songs of birds and the songs of other animals (cetaceans, humans, etc.)? Thanks.

age_of_rationalism

The voice box of a bird is completely unique in the animal world. The best singers have lots of pairs of muscles that can stretch the voicebox in any direction and produce a huge range of sounds, almost like a pipe organ. Birds are extremely vocal and visual, but don’t have much of a sense of smell. If you saw the voice box of a canary, you’d think, “Oh my gosh, I wish my voice box was that sophisticated.”


I recently moved to the Florida-Georgia line and would like to visit the museum and any local bird refuges. Rather than a Google search, what are some of your favorite local areas to go bird watching?

usafguy2013

Good question! Cedar Key is hard to beat. Near Gainesville, Paynes Prairie and Sweetwater Wetlands are both outstanding places to look at birds. A canoe trip in Okefenokee or on the Suwannee River (which empties into the Gulf of Mexico) is always a lot of fun.


Go Gators! I've been to the Florida Museum of National History and have always enjoyed the collections there. I recently read that the number of wading birds in South Florida has declined drastically this year. Do you think the problem of pythons in the Everglades could have contributed to that? What ideas can the state implement to remove these invasive snakes from the Everglades? The python hunting season doesn't seem to be removing nearly enough at least from what I've heard.

edit: i just read this on the just approved "python posse". Really interesting.. http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/environment/article137419753.html

nick2591

We cannot say without a shadow of a doubt that there’s a connection between the python problem in South Florida and the decline of wading birds in the Everglades. However, there could be a correlation, since their decline has coincided with growing numbers of invasive pythons. Up here in North Florida, wading birds are faring much better, in large part because of vigorous management and protection of wetlands. I can see herons, egrets, ibis, osprey, and eagles every day from my office window. UF's campus is renowned for good birdwatching.


I have read that island species tend to smaller size, as in pygmy elephants. What effect do island predators have on the process?

alphonsobidoya

The general trend for island species is to get larger in body size through time--for example, the dodo is a big pigeon. But there are lots of exceptions. Even among flightless birds, some have become smaller rather than larger. An example would be several species of extinct flightless rails in Polynesia, which were even smaller than any living species of rails that can fly.


What do you consider to be the most rewarding/enjoyable aspect of your work?

Katherinewhite

Teaching students of all ages to learn about and appreciate nature.


What you're doing is amazing. I hope to work in a research setting for either a university or museum. How did you end up where you are right now? What choices in your academic and career led you to working where you are?

peanut_jam

I never allowed myself to be pigeonholed into a single discipline, and I always welcomed working with people from very different backgrounds. I avoided becoming over-specialized at a young age.

Museums based at universities provide great ways to pursue this goal. If you're interested at museum work and are a student, consider volunteering or working at a local museum. A lot of our curators started out that way!


How did non-biologists (e.g. anthropologists) respond to your 1995 paper in Science, in which you showed that the Polynesians were directly or indirectly responsible for 100s or even 1000s of bird extinctions across the Pacific region? Did your paper(s) on bird extinctions change or generate theories of how the Polynesians operated (e.g. their respect for nature)?

KorreltjeZout

The response from anthropologists was generally positive. We all need to eat, and I've always admired Polynesians' respect for nature. Probably as much or more of the extinction of Polynesian birds was due to predation from rats, rather than humans. Polynesians brought the rats, but it likely was unintentional. Each of us has had some sort of a negative effect on the environment.


Lord God Bird. Is it possible to still be alive in the wild or is that wishful thinking?

DrDisastor

Sadly, I think it's wishful thinking. Hyper-intensive searches have turned up no solid evidence. Negative evidence is never absolute, but searching for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers is unlikely to be productive.


Is there interest in resurrecting extinct species like the dodo? It seems a bit silly to spend so much time and effort on something like mammoths that died out thousands of years ago, but we just killed the dodo in the 1600's. It seems a more likely candidate.

finchdad

"Silly" is relative. To most geologists, either centuries OR millennia are very short periods of time. Humans have played God with critters mostly by wiping them out. Why not play God in a positive way?


Are you seeing evidence that we are in a major extinction event? What would you say to people who say extinction is just a normal part of the process as we are not undergoing a mass-extinction event?

the_michael_lee

Extinction, just like evolution, is a natural process. The reason why we are undergoing an extinction crisis today is that the current rate of extinction is about a hundred times greater than the natural rate. Because of this, whatever natural extinction might be taking place is utterly swamped out by human-caused extinction.


Hi, my question would be, how do you choose an island thinking there's a possible fossile there? You could search nearby ones, where fossiles have already been found, because there would be a high probability of anothers I think. But can you just pick random one a try your "luck" there?

Thanks!

Goddammit_charlie

I’ll go to any island at least once. The geology of the island give us clues about whether fossils will be found. Even on islands without fossils, the living plants and animals can be fascinating.


I went to the Caribbean for the first time in my life last January. At St. Kitts, I hiked into a mountain rainforest. I was a little stunned at how quiet it was - no birds flying and calling. Maybe it was not the right time of day. I wondered if settlement and exotic species killed off the forest birds.

sleestakslayer

Your observations don't surprise me. On a lot of Caribbean islands, bird life in the forest is rare, both in terms of numbers of species and numbers of individual birds. If you were in the forest only in the afternoon, that could be a factor. Even in the morning, however, some Caribbean forests are pretty quiet. How much of this quiet is due to invasive species or other factors is pretty speculative.


I have 2 questions:

  1. What islands or areas of research are you most excited about for the future?
  2. What kind of work do you do with local communities when working abroad?
peahas

I'm interested in keeping the wildest islands wild so that we can learn more about native species. It's difficult to save species if you don't know anything about them.

Examples of very wild islands would be Little Inagua in the Bahamas and Tofua in Tonga.

In terms of working with local communities, I always give talks to school groups and often hire field assistants and guides--who know more about their island than I do.


As a Gainesville native and UF student, I wanted to say thanks to people like you for making that Museum one of my favorites (yes I know I'm biased).

My question is: what are some of the benefits for working at a museum that's so closely tied with a University? Thanks!

shnoiv

Thanks very much for the kind words! We who work at the Florida Museum love being on the UF campus. The museum faculty, while known mainly for their research, teach lots of courses and mentor many students, both grad and undergrad. If the museum stood apart from the university, all of our programs would be much weaker. With all the great people and resources on the UF campus, we have abundant opportunities to do collaborative research that wouldn't be possible if we weren't part of a major university.


Last spring I wrote a term paper for my biogeography course summarizing patterns of extinction in the Lesser Antilles, and I cited quite a few of your papers! Always very interesting studies. I have a lot of questions, but I'll try and stick with a few.

Last spring, my advisor went to the Bahamas for a conference on the possibility of introducing (Neo)monachus into the Caribbean. Is that plan in motion? What kind of trophic repercussions would you expect?

One of your studies discusses how C. alburyorum, C. rhombifer and several subspecies of Cyclura were capable of maintaining viable populations through the Pleistocene-Holocene Transition. Can you explain what was so surprising about this discovery? Does it give you hope for certain species faced against climate change?

Lastly, do you have any diabolical plans to resurrect Tyto pollens using fossil DNA? OK, maybe not, but either way, would it be possible to re-introduce a similar predator, or was it so unique that there's no possibility? Are there currently populations of owls on the Bahamas which fill some of T. pollen's niche?

SwankyNautiloid

I wasn't surprised that the big reptiles you mention (tortoise, Cuban crocodile, rock iguana) survived the Pleistocene-Holocene Transition (when the islands became smaller, warmer, and wetter), but that had not been documented before. What this does show is that many (obviously not all) species, even on islands, can be highly resilient to natural climate change. The combination of climate change and human activity leads to much more vulnerability.


Any tips for birding on Saba? Headed there for the next week!

zahnerphoto

Get in the woods on this very steep island & look for the three "mimids" that live there --- Scaly-breasted Thrasher, Pearly-eyed Thrasher, and Brown Trembler. Also enjoy the wintering warblers, some of which will be heading north soon (if not already). The three species of hummingbirds should be easy to find near flowers. It should be a blast!


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