The D.L. Serventy Medal may be awarded annually for outstanding published work on birds in the Australasian region. It has been awarded for the last 20 years and is the highest award offered to professional ornithologists by BirdLife Australia.
Naomi Langmore is the 2019 Serventy Medallist.
Professor Naomi Langmore published her first scientific paper from her ANU honours research on fairy-wrens in 1992. Since then she has published over 90 papers and books, including multiple highly cited contributions to the world’s highest ranked academic journals (e.g. Nature and Science,) and in so doing has consistently placed Australian birds and their remarkable natural history on the world stage. She completed her PhD on Dunnocks and Alpine Accentors at Cambridge University in 1995 and moved back to Australia in 1999 to pursue her studies on Australian cuckoos and the evolution of bird song. She has become one of Australia’s best known avian evolutionary ecologists, working primarily on co-evolutionary processes between avian species, their signalling strategies and mating systems, and the impact of climate change. Several of her contributions to Australian ornithology have become textbook examples of evolution at work. Examples include:
Australian cuckoos. Although many species are adept at rejecting cuckoo eggs, recognition of cuckoo chicks was thought to be prevented by learning constraints. Naomi’s research on Horsfield’s bronze-cuckoos and their fairy-wren hosts, now one of the most highly cited studies on cuckoos, confounded theoretical expectations by providing the first evidence of cuckoo chick rejection by any host species (published in Nature in 2003). Her research indicated that the co-evolutionary arms race between cuckoos and their hosts has escalated to a new stage, and launched a new field of research into cuckoo - host interactions. One fascinating outcome of the arms race identified by Naomi is that host rejection decisions are based on visual and vocal cues which in turn have led to the evolution of visual and vocal mimicry in cuckoo chicks. Another major insight was that selection for defences in hosts can shape the evolution of their breeding systems (published in Science in 2013,). Naomi has applied her remarkable study system to investigating the impact of climate change by looking at phenological mismatches and the impact of range expansions on co-evolutionary processes.
Bird song has been viewed traditionally as the exclusive preserve of males. Naomi’s discoveries that female song is widespread, hormonally mediated, functions to attract males, and (fundamentally) is ancestral among oscine birds (published in Nature Communications in 2014), have led to a major paradigm shift in perceptions about bird song. Her highly cited publications on vocal signalling in female birds have contributed to recognition that secondary sexual characters in females have generally been overlooked by evolutionary biologists.
Cooperative breeding systems are characterized by non-breeding helpers that assist breeders in offspring care, and occur at high rates in Australia. Naomi and her colleagues demonstrated that helper benefits can be obscured by maternal tactics; in superb fairy-wrens mothers with helpers lay smaller eggs than those without helpers. Helpers compensate for these reductions, allowing mothers to live longer (published in Science in 2007). Naomi’s group tied together two major research strands when they provided a novel explanation for the extreme geographic skew in cooperatively breeding species (published in Science in 2013). They showed that the global distributions of avian brood parasites and cooperative breeders are tightly correlated, and provided strong evidence that cooperative breeding can evolve as a defence against brood parasites.
Naomi is a quiet achiever but the quality of her research and her continued success at placing Australian birds on the international stage speak volumes. She is a long standing editor of Behavioral Ecology, and a superb communicator who recognizes the importance of making research findings available to non-scientific audiences. She regularly contributes to newspapers, magazines, radio and TV, as well as giving talks to amateur societies. She is a much loved and generous mentor to many students and post-docs.
Nick Davies, University of Cambridge
Penny Olsen, Australian National University