In 2011, as I prepared for my first expedition to Papua New Guinea, I stumbled upon an article from a 1932 issue of Natural History entitled “A Tenderfoot Explorer in New Guinea.” Like me, the author was only twenty-three years old and inexperienced in the field, and he had been given the opportunity to travel to New Guinea to collect birds. The difference was that in the eighty years that separated us, he had become one of the most eminent writers and thinkers in evolutionary biology, Ernst Mayr. Thinking of Mayr, who died at the age of 100 in 2005, as an anxious young scientist packing for his first field expedition was both strange and comforting.
While Mayr was in New Guinea to collect as many rare and spectacular species as he could find, I was there with a more specific goal. As a PhD student, I had been given the opportunity to investigate speciation in a group of closely related finch species called munias (genus Lonchura). These small seed-eating birds are close relatives of the zebra finch, a model organism for song learning and passerine genomics. While they lack the bright colors and ornamental plumage of much of New Guinea’s avifauna, the twelve species I am studying exhibit a diversity of handsome black, brown, and white plumage patterns.
The birds frequent grassy areas near gardens and villages; there my assistants and I set up mist nets to catch them. We photograph the birds, weigh them, take measurements, and take samples of blood and feathers. We also collect museum specimens and take tissue samples. These activities may not seem as glamorous as those of New Guinea’s pioneer ornithologists, but our work is part of a new era of exploration. I am using the munias to understand, at the genomic level, the process of speciation that Mayr first described. With the tools of molecular genetics at our disposal, even the most common birds can reveal fascinating secrets.
Since my first trip in early 2011, I have traveled to New Guinea four times. When I returned from my last trip, my fieldwork completed, I reread Mayr’s essay. His conclusion, about the formative effects of fieldwork on a young biologist, could have been written for me:
Looking back on my first expedition, I value more than the discovery of many specimens and facts new to science, the education that it was for me. The daily fight with unknown difficulties, the need for initiative . . . and all the other odds and ends of such an expedition, accomplish a development of character that cannot be had in the routine of civilized life. And this combined with a treasury of memories, is ample pay for all the hardships, worries, and troubles that so often lead us to the verge of desperation in the scientific work that takes us into the field.
Mayr’s first trip to New Guinea would spark a distinguished career. Only time will tell what the result for me will be. But despite everything we have learned in the past eighty years, we still have so much more to discover. That is what drives me to keep exploring.