Brendan Lynch
KU News Service

DNA sequencing helps pinpoint new bird species in midst of Asian metropolis

Tue, 07/16/2013

LAWRENCE — Scientists discover precious few new bird species each year — perhaps just a few. So it’s remarkable that bird researchers at the University of Kansas helped discover a bird new to science near Phnom Penh, the densely populated capital of Cambodia. They’ve dubbed it the Cambodian Tailorbird, but it also goes by the scientific name Orthotomus chaktomuk.  

“There are really two types of ‘discoveries,’” said Rob Moyle, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and associate curator in the Biodiversity Institute at KU. “Often, scientists know that a bird lives across a certain region, but it hasn’t been appreciated that one population, for instance on an island or mountain, is different enough from the rest to warrant species status. So the bird is not discovered, but its status is changed. Then, there are true discoveries — finding a type of bird that no scientist knew existed. That’s the case with the Cambodian Tailorbird.”

The new find is a small bird with a somewhat long, thin bill. It has a rusty cap, a gray back and lighter underparts, according to the KU researcher.

Moyle and KU doctoral student Carl Oliveros were part of a team of scientists organized by the New York City-based Wildlife Conservation Society that described the new bird. The KU researchers were recruited for their expertise in tailorbird genetics.

“The bird was discovered by Simon Mahood of the WCS after he saw photos that had been taken of some birds in the field that didn’t really match the description of any known species,” Moyle said. “He spent a lot of time observing the birds and became convinced that they were an undescribed species. He wanted to know how this species might be related to other known species, and the best way to make those comparisons is with DNA sequences. That’s where KU came into the picture. In collaboration with researchers from Louisiana State University, we’d published a genetic study of the known species of tailorbirds in 2012, so Simon approached us to sequence DNA from the new species.”

Because birds are easily visible and charismatic enough to inspire legions of birdwatchers, a new bird discovered in an urban zone like Phnom Penh came as a shock.

“Two factors might have been in play here,” Moyle said.  “First, no one looks for new species of bird that close to an urban area, so it was really hiding in plain sight. Also, unrest in southeast Asia, and Cambodia in particular, precluded much scientific exploration for decades.”

Moyle, who uses genetic data to study the diversity of birds, focusing on Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said that the find showed that new bird species could pop up in unexpected places.

“I wouldn't expect too many of them in cities,” he said. “But the Cambodian Tailorbird has demonstrated that we still know relatively little about the natural world.”

A small piece of muscle tissue from a voucher specimen of the bird was enough to sequence its DNA in a new lab at KU and determine its relationship to other bird species.

“DNA alone can rarely determine species status,” said Moyle. “Instead, it is used to determine the relationship of the putative new species to other species, which tells us the closest relatives that need to be considered. In the case of the Cambodian Tailorbird, the species that is closest genetically is very different in appearance. Species that look most similar turn out to be more distant relatives — supporting the case for species status.”

The DNA was sequenced in newly expanded and renovated molecular systematics labs in Dyche Hall on KU’s main campus. These state-of-the-art labs were opened last year, funded by a large grant from the National Science Foundation, along with support from the university and private donors. Several faculty and dozens of graduate students rely on them for research projects, including reconstructing the evolutionary relationships of diverse groups of plants and animals, sequencing ancient DNA from old museum specimens and identifying the genetic mechanisms behind morphological traits. 

Asked if KU would have a hand in describing other new species in the future, Moyle thought it was likely.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Stay tuned.”

Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner. See it here:
Rock Chalk! Junior Ashlie Koehn named KU's 18th Truman Scholar
Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening.

.@KU bschool 's KIP team includes @KU _SADP students in all-ages housing project. #KUworks
Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner From KU News Service: Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening. To her surprise, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little was on the other end of the call letting Koehn know she had been named a 2015 Harry S. Truman Scholar. Koehn is the 18th KU student to be named a Truman Scholar and the only 2015 recipient from the state of Kansas. Earlier this month, she was also named a 2015 Udall Scholar. And in spite of a distance of more than 10,800 kilometers and 11 time zones, Koehn’s thrill from hearing the news from the chancellor came through loud and clear. “Ashlie’s experience at KU epitomizes a quality undergraduate experience. She challenged herself in her coursework, exposed herself to different research opportunities, studied abroad in Germany, Switzerland and Kyrgyzstan, and participated in both student government and community service projects,” Gray-Little said. “This is quite a year for Ashlie. Her hard work is a wonderful reflection on her and also a great reflection on the university, and we all congratulate her.” Each new Truman Scholar receives up to $30,000 for graduate study. Scholars also receive priority admission and supplemental financial aid at some premier graduate institutions, leadership training, career and graduate school counseling, and special internship opportunities within the federal government. Koehn, a member of KU’s nationally recognized University Honors Program, is majoring in environmental studies, economics and international studies. Her goal after earning her KU degree is to pursue a master’s degree in economics at either the London School of Economics or the University of Reading, with a focus on the economics of climate change. In 2014, she received KU’s Newman Civic Engagement Award for her work establishing the Coalition against Slavery and Trafficking. Her involvement with the issue was sparked by Hannah Britton, associate professor of political science and women, gender, and sexuality studies, who hosted national conference on contemporary slavery at KU three years ago. “Ashlie and I met several times to think about what KU students could contribute to the issue of slavery and human trafficking, and the result was her founding of KU CAST,” Britton said. “After a year as president, Ashlie successfully handed the organization over to the next student leader. She demonstrated her strong leadership qualities by setting a unique goal and then pursuing it with her sense of passion, engagement and dedication. No matter the country or context, her leadership strength is evident in her coursework, her public service and her work experiences.” The University Honors Program works with a campus committee to select KU’s nominees for the Truman Scholarship and supports them during the application process. Anne Wallen, assistant director of national fellowships and scholarships, noted it was an amazing ruse to pull off the surprise. Originally, the call was set up to be between Wallen and Koehn. “I was totally not prepared to be greeted by Chancellor Gray-Little, but it was an amazing surprise for sure,” Koehn said. “As a first-generation student, it took time to learn the collegiate system, but my parents taught me to be resourceful and independent from a young age and KU and the Kansas Air National Guard have provided me with the opportunities to drive me into the future, both at graduate school and in my career. I plan to use the Truman Scholarship to pursue a career as an environmental economist helping to shape future trade agreements and leverage action on important international environmental issues, particularly concerning climate change.” Koehn also had a surprise of her own for the chancellor — the meal she was helping to prepare was not exactly typical Kansas dinner fare. On the menu with her host family in Kyrgyzstan on Monday was a traditional Kyrgyz meal called Beshbarmak, or “five fingers,” because you eat it with your hands. The dish is made of horse and sheep and was being prepared as a birthday celebration for Koehn’s host mom. Chancellor Gray-Little, as she signed off from Skype, made sure to encourage Koehn to enjoy her Beshbarmak. Koehn is the daughter of Rodney and Carolyn Koehn of Burns. She graduated from Fredric Remington High School in Moundridge. She is an active member of the Kansas Air National Guard and currently on leave while studying abroad in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She is a member of the KU Global Scholars Program and a past member of the Student Senate. In addition to being named a 2015 Truman and Udall scholar, she was named a 2014 Boren Scholar and Gilman Scholar and in 2013 was named the Kansas Air National Guard Airman of the Year.

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