Danielle Wasserman Visits Vertebrate Zoology

Danielle Wasserman, a PhD student from the City University of New York (CUNY), spent just over a week in Bishop Museum’s Vertebrate Zoology collection examining our Hawaiian honeycreeper specimens.  (The honeycreepers are a group of forest birds that are endemic to the Hawaiian Islands and represent an amazing example of adaptive radiation.)  Some of the specimens were skeletons, others were whole animals preserved in alcohol.  This was Danielle’s first visit to Hawaii and she spent her free time exploring as much of Oahu as she could!  She kindly agreed to answer some questions so that we could learn a little more about her research and her travels.

Can you briefly describe the project you’re working on to earn your PhD?

I’m studying hyoid evolution in Hawaiian honeycreepers. The hyoid apparatus is an intricate skeletal element that supports muscles of the tongue and can vary between species. The Hawaiian honeycreeper clade has undergone rapid speciation with dramatic niche and anatomical divergence. Their beaks and tongues have diversified and as I learned on my visit, so have their hyoid bones. This is a rare opportunity to study how body parts evolve. I am comparing the hyoid, skulls, beaks and muscles of the honeycreepers so that I can understand what has happened to those structures over evolutionary time. A species phylogeny built with DNA serves as a scaffolding for my trait evolution hypotheses.

How many animals did you examine while you were here?  How many different species did you examine?

I did a census of the several hundred Hawaiian honeycreepers in the collection, taking all preparation types into account. I gleaned data from approximately 40 specimens and 9 species. I discovered much during my visit and benefited from comparing my organ of interest (the hyoid apparatus) across preparation types. Seeing the hyoids in the skeletonized specimens, I finally understood the representations of it in the literature. On my visit, I identified wet specimens that will be good for CT scanning. The birds will be sent to the University of Florida campus where a machine is available.

When did you realize that zoology was something you wanted to pursue professionally? Have you been interested in animals since childhood, or did your interest develop during your undergraduate years?

Ever since I can remember, animals were always the most interesting part of life. I looked for them at every opportunity (dead and alive). I can’t remember an age when animals were not priority number one. Every education or job-related decision that I’ve ever was made was with animals in mind. A career in animals was always in the cards. My interest in anatomy, evolution, a tendency to collect specimens and liking to work with my hands led me to museums.

How did you spend you free time while you were in Hawaii?

I explored the island in my rental convertible, dangled bait in shallow water to see what fish showed up, swam, and looked at tide pools. I ate a lot of pineapple. One night, while sitting on a stone wall watching a distant brush fire, I was bitten by a giant centipede. Now, I’m on antibiotics for the infection that followed. Overall, I made great use of my free time in Hawaii.

Alcohol-preserved honeycreeper specimens from the VZ collection have been sent to a CT scanning facility at the University of Florida.  Danielle intends to scan the hyoidal characters in October, so stay tuned for the exciting images to come!

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