Bougainville Birds Provide A 100-Year Baseline For Biodiversity : Short Wave In the early 1900s, the Whitney South Sea expedition gathered 40,000 bird specimens for the American Museum of Natural History. The collection is an irreplaceable snapshot of avian diversity in the South Pacific, but is missing key geographic data. To solve this mystery, student researchers dug into field journals to determine where birds from one island came from.

Mapping The Birds Of Bougainville Island

Mapping The Birds Of Bougainville Island

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A male Bougainville Whistler (Pachycephala richardsi), a species endemic to Bougainville Island. This whistler is named after Guy Richards, one of the collectors on the Whitney South Sea Expedition. Iain Woxvold hide caption

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Iain Woxvold

A male Bougainville Whistler (Pachycephala richardsi), a species endemic to Bougainville Island. This whistler is named after Guy Richards, one of the collectors on the Whitney South Sea Expedition.

Iain Woxvold

What do you do with an 100-year-old collection of birds?

If you're a teen scientist, you pinpoint where exactly the birds came from.

In the early 1900s, the Whitney South Sea Expedition gathered 40,000 bird specimens for the American Museum of Natural History. The collection is an irreplaceable snapshot of avian diversity in the South Pacific, but is missing key geographic data. A more complete picture would help biologists understand how the region has changed in the last 100 years.

Collectors with the Whitney South Sea Expedition sailed aboard The France, a 75-foot schooner, from 1920 until 1935. The France is pictured here off the New Georgia Islands, 1928. AMNH hide caption

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AMNH

Collectors with the Whitney South Sea Expedition sailed aboard The France, a 75-foot schooner, from 1920 until 1935. The France is pictured here off the New Georgia Islands, 1928.

AMNH

To solve this mystery, student researchers Miranda Licardo, Jennifer Dominguez and Hans Sangolqui dug into field journals. They focused on the birds from one particular island, Bougainville, to determine their exact geographic origins.

In the process, the teen scientists uncovered the names of Pacific Islanders who sailed with the Whitney expedition, but were never credited for their work.

The students were mentored by Paul Sweet, collection manager in the Department of Ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History.

Their research was part of the museum's Science Research Mentoring Program (SRMP), which partners high school students in New York City with scientists.

Our thanks to Iain Woxvold, who recorded the bird songs featured in this episode, as well as the bird sound website, Xeno-Canto.

Also thanks to Scott Rohan for coordinating these interviews, as well as Tramia Jackson, Maria Strangas, and Abby Perez at the American Museum of Natural History.

This episode was produced by Thomas Lu, edited by Sara Sarasohn and Viet Le, and fact-checked by Indi Khera. Alex Drewenskus was the audio engineer.

Correction Sept. 22, 2021

An earlier version of this story identified the SRMP as the Student Research Mentoring Program. It is the Science Research Mentoring Program.