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Chained to the desk


Re-classifying swallows with James Bond
Ernst Mayr Scientist
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I saw that some swallows were classified on basis… primarily I guess their color. If they were dull-colored they were put together and the glossy ones were put in another group, and I discovered or I knew that among the dull-colored one were some that built mud nests, just like the barn swallow does and like the… the cliff swallows and things that. And so I reorganized the swallows on this basis and I got the help of a worker on American birds, and South America in particular, James Bond – incidentally, he gave the name to the famous James Bond – and between James Bond and myself we worked out a classification of the swallows primarily based on the nesting habits, but also on some other things. And this classification based on behavior has now been almost completely confirmed. There's only one species which they change by the molecular people, and that has always been something that I've been rather pleased with, that behavior has, in this case, been such an important clue to relationship.

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.

Listeners: Walter J. Bock

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.

Tags: South America, James Bond

Duration: 1 minute, 22 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008