Species discovery

It's not every day that you get to make a definitive decision on a new species. But after a number of years of review, research submitted for peer review in 2008 by Dr. Theresa Burg and then-undergraduate student Derek Raines has been recognized as being a key factor in distinctly defining a group of endangered albatrosses located on remote Amsterdam Island in the South Indian Ocean.

"When it was first discovered in 1984, researchers described it as a new species because its plumage resembled a juvenile wandering albatross, which was a darker colour and in other groups whitens as it matures," says Burg. "They have a different breeding date and are smaller, and they have juvenile plumage. That gave me the idea they were different, but some research had lumped them in with other species. There had been research done on more slowly evolving genes, and there was no difference found. We looked at the other groups and found there were three other groups separated by seven to nine (genetic) differences."

Dr. Theresa Burg
Dr. Theresa Burg cradles a young albatross. Photo by Scott Schaffer, San Jose State University.

Burg argued that the longer the time that there has been a separation of genetic information, the better the chance the birds were distinct – and her peers agreed.

The challenge of physically getting the research done can be daunting, because as Burg describes it, the island is in the 'middle of nowhere' near Antarctica.

Getting there would typically involve a plane trip to the Falkland Islands off the coast of Argentina, a long boat ride courtesy of the British Navy and either a helicopter ride or, more typically, being cast into the freezing water in a small boat to reach the island.

The upside? E-mail through a satellite phone.

The downside? Aside from the trip and weather, dodging cranky fur seals that, despite their slow 'look' can outrun a person, head-high clumps of grass and a long turnaround time to return samples to a lab – sometimes weeks, depending on passing mail boats.

A pair of albatrosses announce their presence.

Her doctoral research began at Cambridge University in the UK where as part of her program she was researching fur seals near the Falkland Islands. She was approached to work on albatrosses because there was less research available and the opportunity seemed unique.

The challenge now is to look for more opportunities to protect the species, since albatrosses are a threatened group of birds.

"Of the 22 different known species, 75 per cent are threatened, and this population in particular is critically endangered," says Burg. "They are a small population to begin with because of a breeding cycle that produces a single egg every two years and they face further challenges from rats introduced from whaling ships which eat the egg, and death by long-line fishing."

Burg's research these days is less distant and more accessible. She is focusing on genetic markers in chickadees, woodpeckers and jays, where her research is showing evidence of the evolutionary changes in these birds since the last ice age.

"There appears to be higher levels of variation in the species in areas that were not covered in ice, versus areas that were," Burg said. "Understanding this can help us to determine what process led to the creation of species of birds."

This story first appeared in the Legend. For a look at the Legend in a flipbook format, follow this link.