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Ordering the Wilderness

March 13, 2012

Like many great Academy ornithologists that came before him, Ornithology Collection Manager Dr. Nate Rice gets cabin fever. He is passionate about managing the bird collection, and he gets equally excited about exploring wild regions and documenting the fauna there. That’s why when ornithologists from the University of Kansas approached Rice with a project that provided him the chance to travel to an isolated area of northwestern Vietnam, he jumped at the chance to participate.

The expedition, which would support the work of the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), focused on surveying local and migratory birds for emerging diseases such as avian influenza, which might be transferrable to humans. The trip provided Rice and his University of Kansas colleagues the opportunity to collect birds in a difficult-to-access region.

"It’s a perfect partnership because the CDC is interested in the diseases, and my goal is to continue the Academy’s centuries-long effort to collect and document birds in Asia," he says.

The team traveled to the area in 2010 and returned in March 2011 for a six-week expedition. Preparation for the trips required months of gathering permits for national park and forest access, bird collection, and specimen shipping. Rice joined three ornithologists, one herpetologist, four Vietnamese field biologists, a translator, and a Vietnamese cook for the 2011 trek.

"We try to go to the most remote areas possible," Rice explains. "This year we took a small plane to an airstrip in northwestern Vietnam, and we made our own trail as we hiked into the mountains. No matter what the country, we try to get as far away from human settlement as possible to get a sense of what the fauna is like in a certain natural environment.

"We study a lot of maps ahead of time, and we use GPS units in the field," he says. "We’re hiking five or 10 kilometers a day—so we can’t help but get lost! It’s part of the fieldwork and being out in nature."

Rice does not hesitate to admit that fieldwork has its challenges. This year he and his colleagues geared up for tropical temperatures, but they found themselves in unseasonably cold weather. Food was sometimes difficult to find, especially when the team struggled to contact a nearby village for food.

But the thrill of collecting outweighed the practical difficulties. "Our goal was to document all of the species we could find in a certain area," Rice says. "If we were unable to collect a bird, we made sure to record its voice."

The intricate work of disease testing occurred deep in the wilderness. Rice and the team caught birds in nets; swabbed the birds’ mouths, posterior openings, and lung tissue; and preserved the CDC-bound swabs in ethanol.

"Based on last year’s trip, 1 percent or so of the specimens that we collect will have some active influenza," Rice explains. "Those samples are used to make the next year’s flu vaccine."

After the sampling was complete, Rice and his University of Kansas colleagues focused on preparing the specimens and preserving the tissues in ethanol. When the skins were dried, they were packed for shipment to the United States. The specimens will be used for a variety of ecological and evolutionary studies after being accessioned into the ornithology collections of the Academy and the University of Kansas.

In addition to gathering influenza antibodies, Rice and his colleagues are expanding researchers’ understanding of the diversity of birds in Asia. The teams will be performing genetic sequencing studies on some of the difficult-to-identify birds, because only the comparison of these birds’ DNA sequences with those of similar bird groups can determine their actual identities.

"We found quite a few species of birds that have never been documented for Vietnam," Rice notes. "Knowing that these species are in the region increases the known avian biodiversity for that area, which can be critical to our understanding of current conservation issues and broad scale land-use planning."

The specimens that Rice gathered will be unpacked, cataloged, databased, and housed in the Academy’s Ornithology Collection next to other bird skins that our ornithologists collected in Asia during expeditions dating back to the 1800s.

According to Rice, recording the specimens’ data is just the first step in the research world’s utilization of these specimens.

"Scientists around the world are very excited about what we’re bringing back from this remote region and the research potential of these specimens. Next year, in 10 years, and 100 years from now, new research techniques will lengthen the lives of the specimens. My work is just one piece in two centuries of such research that will continue well after my time here."