Andrews Grad Describes Discovering New Bird Species

Written by: 
Published:
March 30, 2018

Andre Moncrieff, who graduated from Andrews University in 2014 and is now a PhD student at Louisiana State University, was part of a team that discovered and named the Cordillera Azul Antbird in Peru. "Getting up while it’s still dark and hearing a dawn bird chorus in pristine Amazonian rainforest is something I wish more people could experience," he says.

Question: You and a team of researchers have discovered a new species of bird in Peru. How and where did you find this new bird? Why do you think it hadn't been catalogued before?

Answer: To give credit where it is due, the initial discovery of the Cordillera Azul Antbird was on July 9, 2016, by a birder named Josh Beck in forest around the town of Flor de Café in north-central Peru. 

By pure luck, I made the seven-hour 4x4 truck ride to Flor de Café along with ornithologists Dan Lane, Jesse Fagan, and Fernando Angulo the next day, July 10, for a three-day research/birding trip. When we arrived, we met Josh, and he immediately told us about an unusual ground-walking antbird. Needless to say, documenting that bird became the trip priority! I decided to stay an extra week in the area. 

The fact that we had run into another birder at this site was not terribly surprising, even given the remoteness of the area, since it had been known among birders for several years as the only accessible site to see the Scarlet-banded Barbet. The odds of us arriving the day after Josh’s discovery, however, are still mind-boggling. 

Why hadn’t this bird species been found already? Well, this antbird is likely only found in ridges of the remote Cordillera Azul mountains; it is secretive (it took me three days of focused effort to finally see the bird well); and the bird has quite narrow habitat requirements of humid, intact understory forest at around 1,300 to 1,700 meters elevation.

How did you decide on the name to give this new antbird? How did you feel when you realized this was a new species?

The naming of the bird was ultimately Josh’s decision, and he decided to name the bird in honor of Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, who has done an incredible amount to promote conservation of natural habitats across the globe. 

For the English name, we debated for some months between names like Azul Antbird, Whistling Antbird, and Mourning Antbird before finally deciding to highlight the unique region with the more specific (and slightly cumbersome) name of Cordillera Azul Antbird. 

The feeling of observing a truly new species to science is hard to describe — it was humbling and exciting. It was also sad, considering that the habitat around Flor de Café is being rapidly clear cut for coffee plantations.

The Cordillera Azul Antbird.

Photo Credit: Andrew Spencer/Macauley Library

Why were you researching in this region of Peru?

Our trip to Flor de Café was really just a quick side trip after more than a month of fieldwork in a different part of Peru, but we did have two main goals. First, we wanted to get better documentation of a kind of woodcreeper, which will also soon be described as a new species. Second, it was the 20th anniversary of Dan Lane’s discovery of the Scarlet-banded Barbet (found in 1996), so we wanted to see that iconic species again.

What do you most like about ornithology?

I am clearly biased, but birds are just awesome creatures to study — they fly, sing, have many fascinating behaviors, and are easy to observe (for the most part!). 

My favorite aspect to ornithology — which helps to balance out the hours in the lab and sitting in front of a computer running analyses — is spending substantial spans of time in the field. Getting up while it’s still dark and hearing a dawn bird chorus in pristine Amazonian rainforest is something I wish more people could experience.

You are a PhD student in ornithology at Louisiana State University. What is the primary focus of your doctoral research? 

My research is focused on the patterns of genomic variation and speciation in Neotropical birds—particularly Blue-crowned Manakins. Blue-crowned Manakins are spectacular birds of rainforest understory found from Costa Rica down to Bolivia. 

I am interested in how genetic differences accumulate between bird populations and the role of different geographic barriers like rivers in the speciation process. Another related area of interest is the genetic basis of traits that distinguish closely related populations. Let’s say there is a population of green birds and a nearby closely-related population of black birds. These two populations may interbreed where their ranges meet (forming a hybrid zone), but they remain distinct in their color. With the help of whole-genome sequencing, we can figure out the genetic basis of simple traits like color and then evaluate the role of these traits in maintaining the distinctiveness of the populations despite their interbreeding. 

What other bird species have you studied? 

Before graduate school, I spent time on research projects studying birds like Glaucous-winged Gulls in Washington State, macaws in southeast Peru, and Black-throated Blue Warblers in New Hampshire. 

I believe you went straight to Louisiana State after graduating from Andrews University with a double major in biology and music in 2014. What made you choose Louisiana State? When do you expect to finish?

Louisiana State University is an excellent school for pursuing ornithology and research in population genetics. LSU has both the largest research collection of South American birds (in the form of study skins), and the largest collection of avian genetic resources (mostly muscle, heart, and liver tissue) in the world. Thus, considering the resources at LSU and my interest in studying speciation in Neotropical birds, it was an easy decision to come here! I am surrounded by graduate students and professors who are passionate about ornithology and population genetics, and I have found the program to be an excellent one. I anticipate finishing in perhaps three years. Thankfully, the last big pre-dissertation hurdle, the written and oral general exam, is now behind me.

How did you first get interested in birds?

My parents bought me a bird book after I had shown some mild interest in birds when I was around ten. Identifying the birds in my yard soon became an obsession, and things progressed from there. 

I spent parts of four summers helping Dr. Jim Hayward and Dr. Shandelle Henson of the Andrews University seabird ecology team, and their mentorship was a critical part of my development from a birdwatcher into someone interested in making the study of birds a career. 

How else did Andrews University and your classes and professors there help you get to where you are now?

I benefited immensely from the research opportunities on the AU seabird ecology team and from one-on-one time with faculty — something I probably would not have had elsewhere. While at Andrews, I learned that research is challenging but also fun and rewarding, and without that experience in undergrad, I likely would have gone on to a career in medicine.

What do you plan to do after you finish your PhD? Will you stay in academia?

Toward the end of my PhD program, I will begin applying for postdoctoral positions. Hopefully, I’ll be able to get one of those for a few years to continue focusing on research full time. I do plan on staying within academia, but I couldn’t say where I’ll end up — usually not a luxury of people in my field! 

I believe you have made lots of other research trips — can you tell us about some of them? 

Yes, field research in South America is a high priority at LSU, and we are extremely grateful to the granting agencies and private donors that fund our work abroad. Since I started at LSU three years ago, I’ve spent about nine months in South America between Peru and Bolivia. Sadly, several of those months, I was stuck in Lima navigating the permitting process for collecting research specimens and genetic material. It was worth it, though! Expedition life typically involves weeks of camping, soggy clothes, few showers, and amazing wildlife. If you ask me, that sounds like a pretty good deal. 

What advice would you have for Adventist young people looking to do graduate work, or to go into academia?

I would say go for it! Depending on the graduate program, it is often possible to get scholarships and assistantships that provide a salary for you to attend graduate school — definitely a nice change from undergrad! The learning is also much more focused toward the subjects you are most interested in. 

It would be great to see more young Adventists pursuing graduate education and interacting with academics from very different traditions and perspectives. 

Do you find any challenges in being an Adventist at a non-Adventist university? 

Certainly. It is always challenging to try to follow Jesus in an environment where that position is often considered intellectually inferior and generally relegated to the private sphere. Being an authentic follower of Jesus means following him in all environments — even highly secular ones — and figuring out how best to do that is an ongoing journey. My colleagues have always been very respectful of my religious views, and I’ve had a number of nice opportunities to share these views and listen to views of others.

Do you still play music? 

Not nearly as much as I’d like, but I have been able to occasionally perform on the violin as part of the LSU baroque chamber orchestra. Coincidentally, the viola professor here at LSU is an Adventist who I had met at Andrews some years earlier, and so I regularly receive encouragement to join this or that music group — and I try to whenever possible!

Photo courtesy of Andre Moncrieff

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