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September 14, 2005

The Other O's: Kevin Omland on Maryland's State Bird

Spring usually brings Kevin Omland attention since he studies Maryland's State bird, the Baltimore Oriole, which migrate back to our region near the start of the season for the baseball playing O's. The assistant professor of biological sciences was recently interviewed on National Public Radio and in the Baltimore Sun about the search for new animal species.

What are the criteria for determining whether an organism is a new species?

We look for three or five pieces of evidence. For example, distinct appearance, plumage, color differentiation, an especially distinct pattern or marking, and so on, plus we also sequence DNA.

Our raven work is the closest we've come to finding a new species. We studied a form of raven in California that was so genetically different from ravens elsewhere in the world but gave absolutely no hint of that in its exterior appearance, behavior, or calls. In the end we found that if the only thing that's distinct is DNA, then it's not enough to be a new species.

How long does DNA sequencing take and can you do it here at UMBC?

Yes, our lab manages the DNA sequencing facility for whole university. Our undergraduate and graduate students learn all the skills required to sequence. In fact, one of our graduate students runs the DNA sequencing equipment and does about 99 percent of the sequencing work for UMBC.

You can teach a bright undergraduate student to sequence DNA in about two weeks, from the first feather or muscle sample to editing the final data on the computer.

Your previous work with ravens has shown that they are remarkably resilient, clever and adaptable to the encroachment of mankind on their habitat. Could you give some examples?

Well, ravens in the Mojave Desert really take advantage of dairy farms as a water source - they've learned to drink from cattle troughs. Ravens in urban areas are also very willing to do dumpster diving for everything from Pizza Hut crusts to parking lot French fries. Of course ravens also cruise up and down highways for miles in search of road kill.

Will you and your students be in the field this summer?

Yes. Baltimore Orioles returned to Maryland from wintering in Mexico and Latin America around May 1.

Where's the best Oriole watching site at UMBC?

We are studying Baltimore Orioles on campus near Pig Pen Pond. They stay high up in the treetops but they'll be there.

I've always thought that the pond next to the UMBC Library was another good habitat with its big trees and water source, but they don't use it. Orioles can be like humans, I guess, in that they seem to use each other as an index of which neighborhood is a good place to settle.

Were you a birdwatcher growing up?

Yes, I grew up in the country in Vermont and my parents were always camping and hiking with us. We always had a bird feeder in the yard or would gather around the back window to see deer or wild turkeys. I've always been drawn to the outdoors and wildlife.

Why did you decide to study orioles and ravens in particular?

We picked the Baltimore Oriole because it has such interesting feather coloration. The male has that wonderful, bright, almost fluorescent orange color. In contrast there's the orchard oriole which is much more chestnut colored.

I wondered why there's such color variation in oriole males from one species to other and why female Baltimore orioles are so dull colored. Both sexes of tropical oriole species found in Mexico have very bright coloring. We have a five-year National Science Foundation grant to study oriole coloration, particularly in females.

We thought ravens were perfect for studying speciation since they're found throughout the Northern Hemisphere. The Common Raven is found from Siberia through Alaska, Norway, Canada and on to the U.S. Because of this wide distribution, we suspected this species might show high levels of genetic diversity.

We also correctly suspected that the Chihuahuan Raven of the U.S. Southwest wasn't genetically distinct from the Common Raven. For our fast breaking paper, we showed that of the 2,000 animal species we surveyed, 23 percent didn't have distinct mitochondrial DNA. So ravens are the bird poster child of why DNA distinction is not enough to declare a new species.

So where are your favorite bird watching spots in the region?

On campus I'd say Pig Pen Pond or CERA. You can spot great birds at UMBC-owls, wood ducks and of course the most charismatic bird of all, the Baltimore Oriole.

Another good place is the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge off the Baltimore Washington Parkway. The National Wildlife Visitors Center there is a great place to go.


Posted by howell1 at September 14, 2005 12:12 AM