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Pesquisa Fapesp 20 Years

Stories on the wing

Both living and extinct birds have been the subjects of various reports over 20 years of Pesquisa FAPESP

Three reports on ornithology

Brazil competes with Colombia for the title of the country hosting the largest number of known bird species. Both count close to 1,900 species, with Brazilian records, according to some sources, already surpassing those of their South American neighbor. Some of this biological richness has appeared in the pages of Pesquisa FAPESP throughout its 20 years in print. In our cover story in issue nº 207, we presented 15 new species of birds from the Brazilian Amazon. The scientific descriptions of these hitherto unknown members of Amazonian fauna appeared in a series of articles published simultaneously in a special volume of the Handbook of the Birds of the World, a global reference for professional and amateur ornithologists.

In quantitative terms, the publication of the new species was the largest discovery in Brazilian ornithology since the end of the nineteenth century. Researchers from the Museum of Zoology at the University of São Paulo (MZ-USP), the National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA), in Manaus, the Emílio Goeldi Museum of Pará (MPEG), in Belém, and the University of Louisiana’s Museum of Natural Science, in the United States, authored the studies.

Research on the genetics of birds has become the subject of several reports. In September 2009, a study by researchers from USP indicated that the first representatives of a group of hawks, from the Buteoninae subfamily, likely emerged in South America 17 million years ago, from the same ancestor that would also have originated a group of birds that includes the bald eagle, a symbol of the United States (issue no. 163). In October 2015, a study conducted by a group of biologists and ornithologists from Brazil, Argentina, and the United States highlighted the molecular singularities of 11 species of seedeaters, small birds from open areas in South America that belong to the genus Sporophila (Pesquisa FAPESP issue no. 236). The study showed that segments of the genome of one species are mixed with those of the others, forming a molecular mosaic.

Evolutionary history has also yielded reports on scientific work that explored unusual connections (at least to the lay reader) between birds, geology, and the environment. For example, an article from October 2007 included a study that explained the diversity of parrots in South America as a result of the tectonic uplift of the Andes range (issue no. 140).

Research on conserving species threatened with extinction represents another large vein mined in the magazine’s reporting. Contrasting moments in the story of the Alagoas curassow (Pauxi mitu), the avian symbol of that northeastern state, which was believed to be extinct in the wild 40 years ago, was told in two reports (issues no. 251 and no. 286). A captive breeding program allowed the species to be reintroduced last year in its native habitat, the Atlantic Forest of Alagoas.

Extinct bird species have also been the subject of Pesquisa FAPESP articles. One of the most interesting stories is that of the so-called terror birds, carnivorous giants that were unable to fly, and formed the family Phorusrhacidae. This group emerged in South America after the extinction of the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago, and disappeared around 15,000 years ago (issues nos. 93, 180, and 256).