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Cristián Samper, evolutionary biologist and the director of Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, discusses his favorite evotourism sites. (Brendan Smialowski)

Cristián Samper on Appreciating Evolution

The director of the Natural History Museum discusses why understanding evolution is so critical

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What are some of the studies being conducted by National Museum of Natural History scientists right now that give some of the most compelling evidence of evolution?
For almost all of the scientists here, if there is one word that unites all the work we do, it is “evolution.” It is the underlying concept of everything we’re working on. Not everything has to do with biological natural selection—we do deal with volcanoes and asteroids and other things—but evolution is one thing that really unites everything here at the museum. I would be hard-pressed to pick one because pretty much every research project we do is in some way connected to evolution.

But there are some particularly interesting examples we’re working on now. The work we’re doing in the Hawaiian Islands is really quite fascinating, especially the research coming out on the honeycreepers by Helen James and Rob Fleischer. The work includes not only birds alive today but also extinct birds. One of the wonderful experiences I had in May when I went to Hawaii was when Helen James took me into some of the lava tubes in the Big Island to find the bones of some of these extinct birds. It was amazing. We would walk through these dark corridors and see a pile of bones. When you date them, you find out that that particular bird died hundreds of years ago. And it’s very well preserved because of the airflow conditions in the lava tube. Between that and the genetic evidence, Helen, Rob and their colleagues have done a really great job looking at the speciation and extinction of the honeycreepers’ entire family. Hawaii is the American Galápagos, and honeycreepers are the equivalent of Darwin’s finches; it’s a very similar story.

Another example is one of our paleontology projects. We have one of the strongest groups of paleontologists in the world right now, which is wonderful. I could give 15 or 20 examples [of projects], but one of the ones I’ve been particularly interested in has been Scott Wing’s research in Wyoming. He’s looking at one particular point when there was a period of rapid climate change—except it happened 55 million years ago. This was when Wyoming used to have tropical rainforests. By studying this period you can actually see the environmental change. The beauty of the fossil record is that it allows you to travel in time, in one place. By comparing the different layers, you can see how the area went from a temperate forest to a tropical forest and back to a temperate forest in a matter of a few thousand years.

We don’t understand what caused the changes and why it became so much warmer, but it’s fascinating to see how quickly the vegetation changed, what survived, what came back and what went extinct. It’s like reading a book page by page, except that it’s a book that was written 55 million years ago.

A lot of what our paleontologists are focusing on right now is understanding those periods of rapid transition and understanding what triggered them and how the various groups of organisms lived.

A third example, which was a very special experience for me, is work in the field of human origins in Kenya by Rick Potts. My wife and I had a chance to go see the site about six years ago. It was wonderful to walk through that landscape in Olorgesailie with Rick and actually start reading the evidence. And it’s not just the human tools, it’s the entire landscape, the entire community that was there. You start finding teeth of zebras that have gone extinct and hippopotamus and other animals, and you suddenly realize that this entire landscape was really changing over time, from wet areas to dry areas, through a lot of environmental changes. And those changes were triggering a huge amount of variation and extinction and adaptation in all kinds of organisms—including early humans, but not only early humans. You can walk through a sequence that covers about one million years in a day. Going through there with someone who knows how to read that and interpret that, having a wonderful storyteller, is a journey back in time.

What destination did we miss in our evotourism package? 
You should definitely include Hawaii at some point. We do a huge amount of research in the Hawaiian Islands and it’s amazing the data that’s coming out. You can really see evolution in action, probably even better than on the Galápagos Islands. Genetics has always been known for research on Drosophila and other organisms, but we’re getting a lot of interesting genetic research on the honeycreeper birds. You can go and see colorful birds like the Iiwi, and some of them are going extinct. Plus it happens to be a great tourist destination anyway, and you can see volcanoes in action. What was so striking to me in Hawaii was that everything comes together in that microcosm.

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