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Ecologist Profile: Jack Dumbacher

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Jack Dumbacher has done extensive research on the toxic properties of the rare pitahui bird of New Guinea. Alex Chadwick has quick biography of this influential ecologist.


In that interview a moment ago, Bruce Beehler mentioned Jack Dumbacher, who's worth a mention. He's chairman of the Department of Ornithology and Mammalogy at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, and he has done research in New Guinea on exactly these poisonous birds, the Pitohui, that Bruce Beehler is studying. For his work, Jack Dumbacher actually captured some of them. In an interview several years ago on the Canadian Broadcast Corporation's radio show Quirks and Quarks, Jack Dumbacher explained how he first discovered that they are poisonous.

Mr. JACK DUMBACHER (Chairman, Department of Ornithology and Mammalogy, California Academy of Sciences): We were studying Raggiana Birds of Paradise. We had about 40 miss nets up in the forest, and we were trying to catch the Raggianas, but we caught many other birds as well, including the Pitohuis. And one day when I was taking some Pitohuis out of the nets - they are jay-sized birds, and they're easily able to cut your hands with their beak and with their claws. And the first thing we did was pop our fingers in the mouth because our cuts were stinging, and we just, you know, licked them and said wow, these sting. And then shortly after putting your fingers in your mouth, your mouth begins to tingle and burn, a lot like hot chili peppers or sort of like the sensation that you get when you put a 9-volt battery on your tongue. And that was how we first figured it out.

And then we went and talked to the local people. We asked them hey, what do you guys know about these birds? And they said right away oh, these are all rubbish birds. You can't even eat these birds. They've got a poison in them.

CHADWICK: Jack Dumbacher of the California Academy of Sciences interviewed on the CBC.

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