Moore Lab of Zoology


We ate the Passenger Pigeon into extinction. It was know as a "cheap meat," and the birds were whittled down by commercial slaughter hunters from flocks so gargantuan they would darken the sky to just one lonely lady: Martha, thought to be the past of her kind, died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

The story of the Passenger Pigeon is a wild ride into anthropogenic extinction: the loss of a species due to humans. Modern environmentalism may have arrived a little too late to save Martha's kind, but researchers are finding ways to use specimen collections in museums around the world to better understand the origins of biodiversity — and, maybe, it's future.

And if it's birds we need, Whitney Tsai Nakashimi's got a few — 63,000, actually. As a researcher at the Moore Lab of Zoology at Occidental College, she has access to the largest Mexican bird collection in the world.

The vintage specimens were collected in the '30s and '40s (none were collected to extinction — the process took place over decades from multiple locations) all meticulously hand-tagged and organized and neatly stored away in rows of cabinets. Knowing just how many biological artifacts rest in those drawers gives you the same feeling you get watching the final scene of Indian Jones and Ark of the Covenant.

But these are working birds. As a PhD student in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department at UCLA, Whitney says this collection offers something both precious and rare: a clear snapshot of biodiversity from a specific moment in history. In other words, a baseline. She and her colleagues are combining that with cutting-edge DNA technology to help predict how today's birds might cope with environmental change.