LSUMNS ORNITHOLOGY HISTORY IN THE NEOTROPICS
John O'Neill talks with Dan Lane about how he became involved in LSU ornithology
A map of some of the LSU expeditions in the Neotropics between1961 and 2013
Birds of Peru, the culmination of many years of LSU research in Peru
Pardusco (Nephelornis oneilli), discovered by LSU in 1973 © K. V. Rosenberg
"No program in history has done more for advancing Neotropical ornithology than that of LSU and its Museum of Natural Science. To look through the Museum's incredible bird collection is to relive in vivid color the last 60 years of South American ornithological exploration. LSU is, literally, the crossroads for Neotropical ornithology."
- John W. Fitzpatrick,
Dr. George Lowery founded the LSU Museum of Natural Science in 1936. An ornithologist, Lowery focused his studies on birds of the Gulf Coast and Mexico. He had wide interests, including nocturnal migration and citizen science in addition to collections-based research, and was a passionate mentor.
In 1961 and 1962, John O'Neill, still a student at the University of Oklahoma, went to Peru and sent bird specimens to Lowery at LSU. During the second trip, O'Neill discovered a new species of tanager belonging to an undescribed genus. This discovery directed Lowery's focus toward South America and forever changed the trajectory of LSU ornithology. In 1961, O'Neill started a master's degree with Lowery at LSU, which would lead to a PhD and ultimately a position as director and collections manager of the LSU Museum of Natural Science. O'Neill's passion would always be field work, Peruvian birds, and discovery based research. O'Neill and Lowery discovered additional bird species later in the 1960's, including a cotinga from a new genus that they named after the McIlhenny family, founders of Tabasco sauce and long-time supporters of the museum.
Under Lowery and O'Neill's leadership, LSU's Neotropical research flourished. In 1974, Lowery invited a young birding phenom from Pennsylvania named Ted Parker to participate in an expedition to Peru. Ted's charisma, ear for bird calls, and passion for field work soon made him the most respected field ornithologist in the Neotropics. Ted's influence also ushered in a very exciting time in which increasing focus was placed on bird vocalizations and ecology and their importance for understanding taxonomic relationships and evolutionary history. It is important to note that prior to this time, the majority of Neotropical species were known almost entirely from museum specimens (and there were no good field guides!). Under the tutelage of Lowery and O'Neill and encouraged by Parker, a large number of LSU students contributed to expanding understanding of Neotropical birds during the 1970's and 80's. New discoveries continued, including a dull brown bird of the Peruvian Andes in 1973 that ended up being another new tanager genus. Even more spectacular was a small, bizarre owl species discovered in 1976, another new genus. Many new species came from the Abra Patricia area of northern Peru, where LSU was able to survey as new roads were being constructed. When Lowery passed away in 1978, Van Remsen was hired as curator fresh out of his PhD at Berkeley. In the ensuing years, Remsen's passion for Neotropical birds and his unwavering attention to detail have propelled him to a position as one of the top authorities on avian taxonomy and on Neotropical birds.
Remsen, O'Neill, and their students continued to conduct field work, largely in Peru and Bolivia. A 1986 trip to Pando, Bolivia was one of the largest in LSU history and resulted in the documentation of 52 species previously unrecorded in Bolivia. New species discovered included a tanager in southern Peru in 1980, an antwren in nothern Peru in 1983, and a parrotlet in central Peru in 1987. The story of the last discovery is recounted in Don Stap's book "Parrot Without a Name". With increasing human pressure on Amazonian and Andean habitats and birds, conservation became a larger theme. LSU inventory work served as the basis for placement of new protected areas in Peru and Bolivia, and Parker began the Rapid Assessment Program to quickly survey endangered areas through Conservation International. LSU personnel, in particular Dan Lane, have continued to form an integral part of many rapid inventories for conservation efforts in Peru, Bolivia, and elsewhere.
The LSU community and Neotropical ornithology suffered a terrible loss when Ted Parker (along with botanist Al Gentry, conservationist Eduardo Aspiazu Estrada, and pilot Raul Mortensen Jimenez) died in a plane crash in Ecuador in 1993 (listen to an NPR radio memoire of Parker here). After a ten-year hiatus in expeditions to Peru due to political turmoil, O'Neill led a trip in 1996 to one of the most isolated mountains in the Peruvian Andes, an unnamed peak above the Río Cushabatay. This trip resulted in the miraculous discovery of a unique species of barbet. Bret Whitney, a museum research associate and one of the most skilled Neotropical field ornithologists was meanwhile making major discoveries including a new genus of ovenbird in Brazil and a new antwren and tyrannulet from white sand forest in northeastern Peru.
In 2001, an expedition to Jeberos and the Río Morona in the northern Peruvian Amazon rediscovered a long-lost antbird that some scientists had resignedly declared a hybrid rather than a real species. In 2003, the museum hired Robb Brumfield as curator of the museum's Collection of Genetic Resources, the largest of its kind in the world. Brumfield's expertise in genetic methods has propelled LSU's systematics and evolutionary research to new heights. Where vocalizations and ecology were revolutionizing understanding of Neotropical birds in the 1970's, genomics has taken over. In 2007, Birds of Peru was released, some three decades after Ted Parker and John O'Neill first developed the idea. This field guide, based in large part on the LSU collections, was the culmination of a huge collaborative effort.
In 2011, a collaboration with the Zoology Museum of the Universidade de São Paulo spurred the beginning of an ongoing series of expeditions to the Brazilian Amazon led by Whitney. These expeditions are an attempt to fill in some of the last major holes in knowledge of Amazonian birds, particularly in the difficult-to-access river headwaters. Meanwhile, expeditions to Peru and Bolivia continue unabated. New discoveries, including a number of undescribed species, from these trips are currently being prepared for publication. Also, the Bolivian equivalent of the field guide Birds of Peru is currently in production.
LSUMNS Ornithology History in the Neotropics
The Long-whiskered Owlet (Xenoglaux loweryi), discovered by LSU in 1976 © D. F. Lane