The late German-American biologist Ernst Mayr (1904-2005) was a leading light in the field of evolutionary biology, gaining a PhD at the age of 21. He was also a tropical explorer and ornithologist who undertook an expedition to New Guinea and collected several thousand bird skins. In 1931 he accepted a curatorial position at the American Museum of Natural History. During his time at the museum, aged 37, he published his seminal work 'Systematics and Origin of the Species' which integrated the theories of Darwin and Mendel and is considered one of his greatest works.
One of my major… purely ornithological achievement was that I was the first to prepare a definitive catalogue of the birds of New Guinea. My list of New Guinea birds, published in 1941, has been the basis of all the many books that have been published on New Guinea ever since and my findings were so sound that people have on the whole accepted everything I said without much question. Now, I did an extremely thorough job there. I looked at just about every single type of New Guinea birds; I studied all the literature that had ever been published on New Guinea in whatever language, including Italian and… where quite a bit was published, and of course French and Dutch and whatnot. And so it was a job that required an immense amount of time and sometimes people have told me that, well, you just wasted too much time on those lists of New Guinea, but… birds… but first of all it has been such a solid basis for future work, but also doing it I learned a great deal. I learned a great deal also on taxonomic method, so I don't really feel sorry about the time that I have spent on this… this… project. I mentioned already, I think in passing, that I discovered this geographic variation of sexual dimorphism and discovered that it couldn't have a hormonal basis but had to have some other basis, and this has not actually been properly followed up after my publication. I discovered some minor things of… of interest. For instance, I… following my friend Rensch, when I was collecting in New Guinea, I established the weight of every bird I collected. I had a… a very fine scale for the small birds and a larger scale for the larger birds, and I discovered, occasionally, some interesting things. For instance, there was a group of genera that I usually placed near the flowerpeckers, but probably not related to them, where I found, and I think it was totally unknown, that the females were very much larger than the males, they weighed sometimes almost twice as much as the males. And that again is the finding of mine that has never been followed up; nobody has ever made study of their life histories to find an explanation for this unexpected discrepancy in weight. Well, these are just some of the findings that I made in the course of my ornithological investigations.
Walter J. Bock is Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Columbia University. He received his B.Sc. from Cornell and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. His research lies in the areas of organismal and evolutionary biology, with a special emphasis on functional and evolutionary morphology of the skeleto-muscular system, specifically the feeding apparatus of birds.