Zheng “Oz” Oong

Research Q & A

What’s your hometown?

George Town, Penang, Malaysia

What are you currently working on?

I am interested in the drivers of diversification and biogeography of the Southeast Asian avifauna. Historically, there has been a strong interest in the biogeography of this region, dating back notably to Alfred Russel Wallace and his extensive field observations of the differences in floral and faunal assemblages across the Malay Archipelago. Despite the interest from researchers today, Southeast Asian biodiversity remains relatively understudied; the validity of biogeographic barriers and the mechanisms in which they influence species distribution remain insufficiently tested. With the support of my fellowship, I am working on studying the broad scale patterns of species diversity and distribution, and how geographic, geologic, climatic, and ecological factors have historically shaped these patterns.

How are you working toward that goal?

As a first year Ph.D. student, I am currently at an exploratory stage of my research. I have been combing the scientific literature, looking at the various diversification models proposed by researchers, in order to have a firmer grasp of the extent of our current knowledge (as well as the knowledge gaps) on Southeast Asian biogeography. Using species distribution maps provided by BirdLife International, I have been assessing the avian species richness across the region through Geographic Information System (GIS). At the same time, I am quantitatively assessing areas of endemism for birds in Southeast Asia. The goal is to be able to identify natural limits to species’ distributions and identify the factors (if any) that may have contributed to these limits.

Why are you focusing your work in that area?

I love birds. More importantly, I am also fascinated by the question of how species become as many as they are and come to be found where they are today. My research is a great intersection of these two passions, because birds, despite their being morphologically rather conserved (they look very similar to each other, compared to, say, a whale vs. a shrew), are remarkably diverse in their numbers and their ecology.

I am drawn towards studying birds of Southeast Asia, because this is a study system that has been rather understudied. I believe this region deserves more attention, not just from a personal standpoint (because I am from there), but also because of the huge conservation concerns over rapid habitat loss. Accurately assessing species limits and understanding factors driving species diversification will be vital towards the conservation of the Southeast Asian avifauna in times of rapid climate change.

Where are you working on research/field work?

So far, my work has been confined to the web (literature search) and the computers on which I do my GIS analyses. I am planning on doing a reconnaissance trip back home this summer to Malaysia to not only look for suitable field sites, but also to speak to local ornithologists for potential collaborations.

What will your next steps/research be?

I will be assessing what specific groups of birds I will be studying; in other words, I want to figure out, at this wide-continental scale, what groups of birds are most representative of the region and whether their biology (behavior, ecology, elevational ranges) can help me answer the questions about the factors driving diversification and biogeography. I intend to test hypotheses about biogeographic barriers using both molecular and morphological data, which means, in the longer term, I am planning to conduct collecting trips to Southeast Asia, as well as visiting other ornithological collections with extensive Southeast Asian sampling (such as Louisiana State University and The University of Kansas).

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