In the 1930s, famed biologist Ernst Mayr became the first to study Pacific Robins. Based on his observations of the robins and other birds on Australia and its outlying islands, he developed foundational concepts that continue to inform the study of evolution. He took copious notes on the birds’ physical characteristics, behaviours, and habitats. Always, he described the robin populations as a single species, albeit with significant variation from island to island.
Ernst Mayr made lasting contributions to evolutionary biology—but like most scientists, he wasn’t right about everything.
Bold new claims
Anna Kearns is a former UMBC postdoctoral fellow now at the Smithsonian Institution’s Conservation Biology Institute. With her UMBC postdoc advisor Kevin Omland and other colleagues, she has conducted new investigations into the relationships among Pacific Robins on various islands using many of the same bird specimens Mayr himself used. The difference is, “He would have mainly been just using his eyes” to compare specimens, Kearns says. She and her colleagues have had the advantage of major advances in technology since Mayr’s time. MORE
Header image: Anna Kearns in the collections of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. These robin specimens were collected almost 100 years ago by Ernst Mayr and others, and have proven invaluable to the modern study of the birds’ evolution. Credit: Anna Kearns.