An all-women group of LSU science students ventured to remote corners of the Amazon Rainforest this semester to study native bird species and their evolution.
The group consisted of ornithology graduate students and one undergraduate biology student. From Aug. 12 to Sept. 10, they traveled along Brazil’s Juruá River, collecting samples from areas that have never been explored.
Ornithology graduate student Glaucia Del-Rio organized the trip. She attributed her inspiration for the journey to the many successful graduate students who have passed through LSU’s Museum of Natural Science.
“We have pictures of these students here, people who have gone to be curators in big museums around the world, the American Museum and the Smithsonian Museum,” Del-Rio said. “What caught my attention was that around 95 percent of them were men. I wanted to do something to bring more women to the field. I think diversity is important for bringing new ideas and points of view to research.”
Del-Rio and the other researchers decided on traveling to the Amazon because its unexplored depths are of great interest to scientists studying speciation and hybridization. After two years of securing permits, filling out paperwork and acquiring a rental boat, preparations for the trip were complete.
A major point of interest for the group was studying the effects of the Juará River on the evolutionary history of native bird species. The river may have served as a source of allopatric speciation, meaning it acted as a physical barrier causing some types of birds to separately evolve and diverge over time until they are no longer of the same species.
Another hypothesis Del-Rio mentioned is the river could have actually facilitated hybridization as a “contact point,” or meeting place, for different species of birds.
“Right now we don’t know. We need more data dating species divergences and comparing these with the time of the river’s formation,” Del-Rio said.
Del-Rio said DNA extraction from their samples will start next week, but the sequencing process will hopefully be completed by December.
Although it is early, Del-Rio mentioned some preliminary observations from the expedition.
“We saw that the lower parts of the forest that are submerged during the wet season contain their own unique community of birds, which would mean that it isn’t just the river acting as a barrier but also the different areas of forest," Del-Rio said.
Del-Rio hopes to have a research publication out in 2020 with their findings. A documentary capturing the expedition is also expected to be complete next year.