March 29, 2012 – "Old Bones, Ancient Molecules, and the March to Extinction of Hawaiian Birds" with Helen F. James, Curator in Charge, Smithsonian Institute, Divison of BirdsHelen James' field research in the Hawaiian Islands revealed an unsuspected and dramatic ecological collapse that ensued after prehistoric human settlement of the islands. Over 55 species of native Hawaiian birds disappeared from the fossil record, apparently driven to extinction by rapid ecological change caused directly or indirectly by people. Dr. James and her research collaborators use ancient biological molecules (ancient DNA and proteins preserved in subfossil bones) to reconstruct the genetic and ecological histories of extinct and endangered species. Most recently, she and her collaborators are using biomolecules in seabird subfossils to study the history of human influence on the pelagic Pacific Ocean foodweb. Another thrust of her island research is to understand how biodiversity is generated and ecological communities are assembled in isolated island systems, particularly with respect to birdlife.
Why is this work important? Reconstructing the history of change in island ecosystems will help us understand why so many island species are threatened with extinction. Records of pre-human ecological conditions can help to establish goals for restoration of native plant and animal communities. In addition, the history of prehistoric extinction and ecological collapse is entwined with the fates of prehistoric human societies in Oceania. Finally, studies of the evolutionary history of isolated island birds contribute to understanding the processes that generate biological diversity.
James is a paleontologist who reconstructs the history of change in island ecosystems by integrating fossil records with modern evidence. She received her D.Phil. in Zoology from Oxford University and is Curator-in-Charge in the Smithsonian's scientific collection of birds at the National Museum of Natural History. She has extensive field experience in Hawaii and other island groups, and has amassed a large collection of fossil birds that are the basis of her research program.