Written by Mandira Banerjee
ANN ARBOR—Swedish and Indian researchers on a trip to the Himalayas of northeastern India noticed that brown birds that were believed to belong to the same species were actually singing different songs.
Those living in the forests or lowlands had a sweet, melodious song. But the ones in the rocky highlands above the treeline had a much harsher, scratchier melody.
The scientists wondered if the birds — known as the plain-backed thrush — were actually two different species. If this were the case, it would be an exciting discovery because only three new species of birds had been found in India since 1949.
The effort to solve the avian mystery eventually led the scientists — Per Alström and Shashank Dalvi — to the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, home to one of the largest collections of bird specimens in the U.S.
Getting permission to collect birds in India is difficult, so the scientists couldn’t get a tissue sample in the field for a DNA test. Fortunately, the museum at U-M had a specimen that matched the sweet-singing species that lived in the forest.
“We had to cut a small toe pad from our bird and send it to Sweden. The DNA sampling from this bird conclusively proved that it’s actually two species,” said Janet Hinshaw, manager of the bird collection at the museum at U-M.
After samples from other museums provided further confirmation, the new species was named Zoothera salimalii — honoring the late Indian ornithologist Salim Ali — and the bird was formally described in January in the journal Avian Research. Its proposed English name is Himalayan forest thrush. The specimen at U-M was the closest match to the new species and has been designated the “holotype” — the best example of the species when it was first described and named.
There are more than 200,000 specimens of birds — about two-thirds of the world’s species — at U-M’s museum. They are lined up in neat rows in thousands of drawers in hundreds of large white cabinets. Most of the specimens have had their internal organs removed, and their bodies are filled with cotton and sutured, preserving them for scientists who visit from all over the world.
“These collections provide a record of the animals and plants that were living in particular places at particular times,” Hinshaw said. “We can find out what genetic changes have taken place over time as they have adapted to changes in their environments. We can obtain information on what they ate and where they migrated.”
The sweet-singing brown thrush is one of the 30,000 birds from India that are in the bird collection at U-M, one of the biggest outside of India. The specimen was collected in the northeastern state of Assam by Thakur Rup Chand in 1954 and has been in the collection for more than 60 years.
In 1930, Chand became friends with Walter Koelz, a native of Michigan and U-M alumnus who was in India collecting plants and birds for the Himalayan Research Institute of the Nicholas Roerich Museum in New York.
Chand and Koelz traveled together for nearly 30 years, collecting specimens from India, Persia (now Iran), Nepal, Tibet and Afghanistan.
They collected thousands of species of birds, plants and mammals that are in various institutions across the U.S., including the American Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Michigan State University.
“Having Chand with him opened doors for Koelz, a fact that is often overlooked,” said Anton Reznicek, assistant director of the U-M Herbarium. Reznicek knew Koelz and worked with Chand in the herbarium. He described Koelz as a shrewd collector with a keen eye and Chand as someone who appreciated beauty.
Chand eventually moved to the U.S. in the 1950s after visiting several times with Koelz, and he worked in the U-M Herbarium. He lived in a modest house on the north side of Ann Arbor and walked to work everyday.
“The street he lived on was lined with crab apple trees. Every spring, when the trees were in bloom, he would invite everyone from the herbarium to his house for a one-pot lunch and to enjoy the flowers,” Reznicek said.
Chand and Koelz had a falling out in 1960 when Chand filed a $50,000 lawsuit against Koelz for his share of the profits from the pair’s collecting efforts. Chand won the case in 1964 and was awarded more than $15,000. They never associated with each other again.
After his travels, Koelz spent the rest of his years in Waterloo, Mich., in the same house where he was born. Considered the town eccentric, he continued to wear clothes worn by Himalayan people—pajamas and long shirts.
His garden had many exotic plants and flowers from his travels. He kept peacocks as pets, chopped his own firewood, had no central heating, walked barefoot on snow and slept on the floor on a horsehair mat.
He had a priceless collection of objects from Asia in his home, including a hand-knotted Persian carpet and an illuminated Koran. After his death in 1989, his collection was sold and all the money from his estate was donated to the Nature Conservancy.
Chand worked at the herbarium and mounted many of his species during his time there. He retired from the university officially in 1970, but continued to work on a part-time basis for another decade, translating his meticulous travel diaries from Urdu into English. He died in 1994.
“Their magnificent collections have outlasted them and will continue to have a major influence on the study of plants and birds from India and South Asia,” Reznicek said.