Birds of Oceania

At the AMNH, Mayr studied primarily the bird fauna of Oceania (Fig. 4.1), the island area bordered by and including New Guinea, Palau and Marianas Islands on the west and the Tuamotus and Marquesas Islands in the east. Based on anthropological research, Oceania is usually subdivided geographically into three regions: Melanesia (New Guinea eastward to Fiji and New Caledonia), Micronesia (Marianas, Caroline, Marshall and Gilbert Islands), and Polynesia (a triangle of many islands, including Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island). Mayr's main interest was in the problems of geographic speciation, but he had never before encountered material documenting this process quite so graphically as these island birds. There was no widespread species that did not contain clear-cut cases of geographic speciation. Mayr followed a three-pronged research program in systematic and regional ornithology mainly founded on the collections of the Whitney South Sea Expedition:

(1) Revision andmonographic treatmentofthe birdsofPolynesia andMicronesia;

(2) Study and revision of the birds of Melanesia in preparation of a book on the birds of the Solomon Islands;

(3) Study and revision of all species and genera of New Guinea birds and preparation of a book on the avifauna of this island.

He was eminently successful in carrying out these programs (Figs. 4.2,4.3). A continuous stream of research articles appeared from 1931 onward punctuated by the publication of book-length contributions like the "Birds of the 1933-1934 Archbold Papuan Expedition" (1937c, with A.L. Rand; 248 p.), his List of New Guinea Birds (1941f, 260 p.), the field guides, Birds of the Southwest Pacific (1945n, 316 p.), Birds of the Philippines (1946k, with J. Delacour, 309 p.) and the handbook, Birds of Northern Melanesia. Speciation, Ecology, and Biogeography (2001g, with J. Diamond as coauthor, 492 pp). The total of his taxonomic and regional ornithological work comprises about 3,500 printed pages (which includes publications on Australian and southeast Asian birds to be mentioned later). Of this total he wrote about half as a single author and the other half with one or more coauthors. Among these were A. Rand, S. Camras, D. Serventy, and R. Meyer de Schauensee during the 1930s, D. Ripley, D. Amadon, J.K. Stanford, M. Moynihan, J. Bond, C. Vaurie and J. Delacour during the 1940s, and T. Gilliard as well as a few others during the 1950s.

From the start, this taxonomic and regional work, however, was not an end in itself for Mayr but a means to go beyond it. Regarding his scientific perspectives he wrote to E. Stresemann on 24 March 1934 (transl.):

"Systematics: I also strive beyond it and often pose the question: Cui bono? or in American: 'What of it?' On the other hand, I consider systematic studies an excellent training and I am paid to do such research. I do not know how I could justify to occupy myself with other subject matter as long as 40-60 undescribed new forms collected by the Whitney South Sea Expedition lie in the drawers. I do not want to give careless descriptions; every careless work I did so far, I regretted bitterly afterwards. Either-or!

The list of references I sent you recently will have demonstrated that I remain in very close touch with the progress of biology. There are many good and capable biologists and physiologists, but only very few really great systematists. Germany has been leading in this field, at least lately (Hartert-(Kleinschmidt)-Hellmayr-Stresemann), should this tradition be discontinued completely? [...] Therefore my proposal to train a truly significant systematist! I shall also see to it that I can train here a 'successor.' For as soon as I shall have completed three additional tasks, I'll also withdraw from the field of 'taxonomy.'1These three tasks are: Monographic treatment of all interesting Polynesian genera, the New Guinea list, and a book on the birds of the Solomon Islands. Afterwards I shall restrict myself to more general problems of 'taxonomy' like 'geographical variation of morphological characteristics' etc. [emphasis added]. Not much news is to be expected in the field of species description anyway (please keep this as a secret!!). I just unpacked the Archbold collection [from New Guinea] that contains nice things such as Daphoenositta, but practically nothing new. I hope to find more in Coultas' collection from the Admiralty Islands."

Since the mid-1930s Mayr increasingly took into consideration general systematic, evolutionary, and genetic aspects, particularly through his contact with Th. Dobzhansky (see p. 133ff.). Certain museum tasks such as the organization and integration of the Rothschild Collection, his increasing involvement in evolutionary studies and activities as a lecturer at various universities interfered only to some extent with his taxonomic work. However, the publication of the book on the birds of the Solomon Islands was long delayed until it eventually appeared in coauthorship with Jared Diamond (2001g). The work on the above research programs will be presented in some detail in the following sections. The results formed the intellectual database for Mayr's later work in the field of evolutionary biology.

1 Stresemann had written to him on 25 February 1934: "I begin to think that my occupation with collection-based taxonomy has been for me only a transitonal stage which, inside, I have overcome completely, but outside not quite yet. It is physiology with its wide perspectives which now attracts me mightily (although perhaps too late)." Similarly already five years earlier: "Actually my real interests have shifted to very different fields [than systematics, zoogeography, and speciation], in particular functional anatomy and physiology" (letter to Mayr dated 14 October 1929).

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