Person holding a bird wing specimen

Anya Auerbach

Research Q & A

How did you get started/what drew you to your area of study?

I started out as a birder, because as a nature-loving kid in New York City birds were a really accessible part of the outdoors. Then in high school I got hooked on evolution- evolutionary theory, at its heart, is a simple and beautiful way to make sense of the world around us. I’ve wanted to be an evolutionary biologist ever since, and contribute to our collective understanding of where the amazing diversity of life around us comes from.

Why are you focusing your work in that area?

Birds are great subjects for evolutionary biologists in a couple of ways. They’re diverse—with over 10,000 living species worldwide, there’s lots of birds to work with! Birds are also relatively well-studied already, because they’ve fascinated so many people for so long. That means that a lot of basic information about them has already been described, which puts us in a better place to ask more complex evolutionary questions. For example, I’m interested in the details of how whole groups of birds evolved over many millions of years, so it’s helpful for me that many of the broad relationships between different groups of birds have already been worked out.

What are you currently working on (as supported by the award)?

I study the diversification of some extremely cool groups of birds that are endemic to Madagascar, meaning they’re found nowhere else on earth. Currently I’m focusing on the vangas, which are known as a great example of adaptive radiation—this one group has massively diversified to fill all kinds of ecological roles. A more famous example of adaptive radiation is Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos. Like Darwin’s finches, vanga bills come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes, so I’m studying the patterns of morphological variation in their skulls to try and understand how they’ve achieved that exceptional diversity.

Where are you working on research/field work?

So far most of my work has been right here at UMN. Like so much of research these days, a lot of my work is done on my computer. However, over winter break I took a very exciting research trip to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York. The birds I’m studying are pretty uncommon, and AMNH has one of the best scientific collections of them anywhere in the world. I got to actually see these birds I’ve been studying for the first time! I requested a loan from AMNH, and a box of specimens is currently on its way to Minnesota, where I’ll be able to use them for my research before returning them to New York.

What will your next steps/research be?

Once my specimens arrive, I will be learning the process of CT scanning, using the microCT scanner here at UMN. I’m really excited to collect my own data from start to finish, and to increase the number of species I’ve sampled. Having more complete sampling of my group of interest will really increase the strength and confidence of the conclusions I’m able to draw from my work. In the longer term, I plan to expand beyond the vangas to compare their patterns of evolution to those of other groups of birds found only in Madagascar, the Malagasy warblers (Bernieridae) and cuckoos (Coua). I want to know whether each group has diversified in similar ways, and how their shared environment might have influenced their evolutionary history.


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