We are studying starling populations throughout North America to detect genetic and phenotypic differences across the country. But, aside from detecting geographic variation, we also want to chronicle how the species has changed over time. For this, we will look inside hidden museum collections. Museum research collections are important scientific repositories for data that are otherwise inaccessible to researchers. Some specimens may represent species, or populations, that are now rare or extinct. It is critically important for the advancement of science to maintain and make available the specimens within research collections. Thousands upon thousands of specimens of birds, mammals, reptiles and fish have been collected, prepared, stored, and made available for research purposes like this project.
We will be soon receiving 33 samples of starlings from The Field Museum. We will not receive whole birds in a bag, or a box, as we have before. The samples will consist of small pieces of old little toe pads cut from bird specimens. Some from England, others from the East Coast of the US—all old, some over 100 years. From these pieces, we will extract ancient DNA. This will bring a new dimension to our starlings study. I am thrilled.
We can answer questions like: Have North American starlings lost genetic diversity over their 100 year time here? Have some genetic groups gone extinct? Do starlings in North America have less genetic variation than those in England from the time of their original arrival in 1890?
And I keep thinking of the hilarious Big Lebowski toe storyline: I can get you a toe by 3 O'clock.