Director’s Letter – March 2019

Avery Hummingbird Jacob Heiling - Directors Letter Image

A Place for Research, Old and New

Hummingbird research captures why RMBL’s plans to archive historic data are so important.

In 1971 Dr. Bill Calder (University of Arizona) first came to Gothic. Resembling the hummingbirds he studied, Bill was thin and wiry, had a prominent nose, and moved quickly. He migrated between Gothic and southern Arizona annually, occasionally under his own power (on a bicycle).

The summer of 1989 that I spent working with him and his wife Lorene was among the most fun I have had. They kept a feeder inside a cage just next to Richards Cabin, where they lived. When a hummingbird visited, they would drop a door on the cage, pull the hummingbird out, and use modified forceps to put a band on a tiny leg. They had another feeder with a perch attached to a scale next to it. This allowed us to weigh the hummingbirds and track how their weights changed across the summer.

Bill sent me to look for hummingbird nests. I expressed bewilderment. He responded that I should get a good book, find a comfortable spot in an aspen grove, and look up occasionally. I read some great books and found one nest.

Bill was interested in how life history traits, such as how long organisms live, and when they first reproduce, scale with size. One of Bill’s more amazing discoveries was a female hummingbird that returned to Gothic for 12 seasons. Such small vertebrates don’t usually live that long.

Bill wrote the book, literally, on scaling, informed by his observations of hummingbirds. Scaling may sound like an esoteric concept, but you never know where exploration will take you. Because large organisms die old, they have complicated mechanisms for avoiding cancer. It may be that understanding the anti-cancer defenses in whales or elephants will point us towards a healthier future, with Bill and his hummingbirds pointing the way.

Such an answer will come too late for Bill. He passed away of leukemia in 2002. As a friend and colleague he is sorely missed. He touched so many scientists that the collaborative lab in the Gothic Research Center is named after him.

Several scientists have picked up the research thread. Unlike humans, birds have a fourth type of cone receptor in their eyes, which allows them to see ultraviolet. Dr. Cassie Stoddard (Princeton) is studying the Gothic hummingbirds to understand color perception and the role of color vision in how they interact with the environment. Nicolas Alexandre, under the supervision of his PhD advisor Dr. Noah Whiteman (Berkeley), has sequenced the genome of broad-tailed hummingbirds, and is studying how hummingbirds and wildflowers evolve in response to each other. Cassie, Nicolas, and Noah are on the cutting edge of applying new techniques in genomics and neuroscience.

What do these stories have to do with RMBL’s plans for archiving historic data? In Bill’s 25+ years of working at RMBL he was very productive, leaving behind 45 scientific publications. However, his actual records are largely gone. How many years individual birds came out. Weights of birds. Behavioral observations. Morphological measurements. And much more. Gone.

That data would be priceless today. There are new techniques for interpreting the demographic data. How are birds evolving and changing in size and shape? Are the numbers going up or down? My guess over the next 25 years, there could easily be another 45 publications. Having the raw data would double the scientific value of what an amazing scientist spent an important part of his life doing.

RMBL’s Board has made archiving historic data an important part of our future. We can’t afford to let lifetimes of research and millions of dollars of research investment just slip away. It is too late to preserve Bill’s data. But Bill was not only a great scientist, but he was deeply passionate about the environment. Making progress on archiving data, and more importantly, giving future generations the knowledge they need to address tomorrow’s environmental challenges would be a wonderful way to honor his legacy.

Ian Billick - Director RMBL

Ian Billick | PhD
Executive Director, RMBL