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Studying Tropical Bird Diversity

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Brian Smith, assistant curator in the Department of Ornithology since last January, credits his career path to a curiosity about nature ignited by childhood wanderings in the woods of northern New Jersey—and his mother’s passion for birds.

Brian Smith Rotunda Photo
Brian Smith is an Assistant Curator in the Department of Ornithology. 

“I was really young, going through the woods and exploring, trying to find animals, flipping up logs, looking for salamanders, and became really interested in wildlife,” says Dr. Smith. “I wasn’t into birds at first but my mother was and she introduced me to them. I slowly became more and more interested in them too.”

Today, Smith scours the bird habitats of Central and South America and Mexico to discover how the extraordinary bird diversity on Earth came to be and how it has evolved across time and space. “The levels of diversity in the tropics are greatly underestimated,” says Smith who, before coming to the Museum, worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the Museum of Natural Science at Louisiana State University. “A lot of the work I will be doing in the coming years is trying to get a better handle on what is the diversity of tropical birds.”

Smith is aided in this work by modern genomics, which allows for a much clearer picture of the evolutionary history of individuals through DNA sequencing. Besides working with source material from the field, Smith has the added advantage of turning to stored specimens for what he calls “ancient DNA.” “We have one of the largest bird collections in the world,” he says of the Museum’s nearly one million ornithological specimens covering nearly 99 percent of all species. “We have specimens of species that are really rare or specimens that come from areas that are never going to be collected again. It provides a very unique resource.”

Profile: Brian Smith

Profile: Brian Smith

Read Brian Smith's Fieldwork Journal from a month-long Constantine S. Niarchos Expedition to southern Melanesia.  

A version of this article appears in the Fall 2014 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.