Villa De Leyva and the Instituto Alexander Von Humboldt.

It is with heavy heart that I left Villa de Leyva yesterday.  My home for the last month, Villa de Leyva is a colonial jem. Chosen by the conquistadores for its location in a dry enclave of the planalto central as early as 1572, the site had already held special importance for the Muisca people of the region (see my previous post about iguaque).  Long the holiday destination for the Colombia’s colonial wealthy, Villa’s architecture enhances a mediteranean feeling. The town also boasts what is apparently the largest cobbled plaza in Latin America, adding to its historic charm, if making things hazardous for anyone in high heels.  This plaza also hosts the most friendly, well-groomed and well-behaved pack of street dogs I have yet to encounter (see pictures here).

 

The real reason for my visit however is the impressive collection of bird specimens held in the Instituto Alexander von Homboldt.  Housed in an ex-monastery, the Claustro de San Augustin (circa 1590), the Institute is home to some 13,000 specimens of Colombian birds.  As part of my post-doc at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, and in collaboration with the institute, I am in the process of measuring many of these specimens to develop a matrix of functional traits (lengths of beaks, wings, feet etc) of about 320 species of birds in the western cordillera, hence my extended visit.  Generously hosted and aided by project collaborator and Directora of the collection, Claudia Medina, and her knowledgeable and friendly technicians, Fernando Forero and Socorro Sierra, I have been welcomed there with open arms and helped at every turn, making the tedious task of measuring about 900 birds that much easier and enjoyable.

I must admit to having mixed feelings about these collections.  Their importance for taxonomy is undeniable, and while their diversity of shapes and colours is fascinating to a naturalist, there is something very sad, almost genocidal, about these endless rows of little dried bird skins, each with their tag, name and number.  There is also something distinctly victorian about our urge to collect, name and own something that is inherenntly dynamic, mercurial and fleeting, such as a bird, or indeed an abstract concept like “species”.   Many museums, such as that at Tring in London, owe their origins first to the private “curiosity cabinets” of the wealthy, and only secondarily to any systematic scientific endeavor.

 
In a place like Colombia, home to 1800 bird species already, there are new birds being described every year, and changing attitudes to collection are reflected in recent controversies over taxonomic precedence, and indeed the need to have entire specimens to describe someone new: http://birdingblogs.com/2011/Gunnar/one-bird-two-names-bitter-feud-among-colombian-ornithologists.  Despite the trope that we must “understand in order to conserve”, several hundred years of collecting and naming in the Linaean tradition also seems to have had limited effect in curbing our environmental impact as a species.  Extinctions continue, and at least in the neotropics, probably faster than taxonomy.  Does this mean we need to do taxonomy faster, or is it time for a fundamental rethink of our relationship with the natural world?

The vast majority of the collections are historical however, and without them, and the taxonomic and systematic knowledge that they allow, the work of ecologists like myself would be much more difficult.  The work of collectors and taxonomists, if unpalatable to some, also plays a critical role in defining our understanding of biodiversity and species distributions, at some level still key to conservation management.  I console myself also that in attempting to wrest additional information (morphometrics) from these silent rows of feathery witnesses to our thirst for knowledge, I am adding to their individual contribution… perhaps in doing so somehow they die a little less in vain?  In the black and white/ colour composite images I have been making, I have also been attempting to capture some of the significance of each individual amongst the multitude.. somehow full monochrome or polychrome images of the collections didn’t seem to do the individuals justice.

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