Studying the intersection of bird species in the Amazon Rainforest
By day, Marquette “Marky” Mutchler studies birds. A junior biology major in the College of Science, Marky prepares bird specimen at the LSU Museum of Natural Science and tries to decipher the mysteries of how birds have evolved over time.
In her downtime, however, Marky leaves the scalpel and thread and enters a different world—her studio space—where drawing books and acrylics await.
But art and science are not always found on opposite ends of the spectrum. Understanding the science behind the specimen allows Marky to capture the true essence of the birds she draws. And working in different artistic mediums aids in her ability to see beyond the biological mechanisms that she so often studies.
“I have always found a love for the natural world around me,” she said. “Ever since I could speak, I was trying to identify everything I saw. It quickly evolved into wanting to study my surroundings, which led me down a path into science.”
Marky’s dual pursuits prompted her to figure out how to bring the more open-ended intuitive thinking of artists into the practice of ornithological research. Most recently, Marky did a frontispiece for “The Wilson Journal of Ornithology.” She’s even launched an Instagram page with the handle @aploart to share and sell her work, which also connects her to individuals who are interested in the complexity of science and art in parallel.
But her main goal remains: Become the scientist of her childhood dreams.
With birds on the brain, Marky is joining the university’s first all-female exploration team in a trip to Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest. The group of researchers also includes Glaucia Del-Rio, Anna Hiller and Jessie Salter, all of whom are doctoral students working with the museum.
The women scientists—Marky included—will pay tribute and follow the footsteps of Emilie Snethlage, a German-born naturalist who paved the way for female researchers in the early 1900s.
In 1905, Snethlage left her homeland behind and traveled alone to Brazil’s loosely studied terrain to collect and study the plethora of bird fauna found in the region. Snethlage, whose achievements are still impacting scientific fields today, became one of the first women to lead a scientific institution in Latin America as director of the Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi. Her discoveries not only led to the identification of more than 60 species of birds, but her own physical pursuit of specimen samples eventually changed how museums managed their approaches to research in general.
“As an undergrad, I didn’t expect to be invited to any large-scale expeditions out of the country,” she remarked. “Although I’ve admired all of the work in the tropics that LSU has done, I certainly did not think I would ever be able to participate in such a way. Since the work I’ve been doing has been a part of my passion since I was so young, working since day one in the museum when I arrived on campus certainly did not hurt my chances.”
The group will begin their journey in Juruá, a small town located in the Brazilian state of Amazonas, and will depart on a boat that will follow the Juruá River. They will then make scheduled stops along the river bank to collect samples and identify potentially unknown species.
The research they will conduct will revolve around studying the “contact zones,” or zones where different bird species meet. The scientists will document the bird fauna from the region to collect data to understand the extent of hybridization, or the interbreeding of species, responsible for the contact zones.
When hybridization occurs, it provides promising conditions for major and rapid evolutionary stages to occur. Approximately one in ten species is known to hybridize.
“It’s a birder’s goal to find new species or to find a new relationship between one species that ends up actually being two or making two species one,” Marky said.
But not all birds interbreed, and the group wants to know why.
By looking at the genomes, or the genetic material of the birds, the researchers will better understand what separates these bird species within the same family, which could ultimately answer big evolutionary questions.
“Just knowing there’s more to that blue jay or that cardinal you see in your yard, knowing what’s really going on in the world is what drives me,” Marky said.
However, beyond the research aspect of the trip, the women scientist say they hope to shed light on the lack of female representation not only in the field of ornithology but in STEM in general. And Marky’s involvement has catapulted her into the conversations about representation and why it matters.
“Before going into my undergrad, I often heard horror stories about how many places do not support their women in science,” she remarked. “It’s been comforting to see the women at LSU excel and put together many fantastic ideas while executing them in great ways. The community at LSU has encouraged me to pursue my own research questions and has supported me along the way.”