When mosquitoes bearing avian malaria were introduced to the Hawaiian Islands a little more than 100 years ago, no one could have imagined the damage they would do to the native bird population. In America, most bird species carry a natural resistance to the parasite. But Hawaiian birds don’t have that protection and now avian malaria is decimating that island’s birds at an alarming rate.

So, why should anyone care and what can be done about it?

Dr. Fleischer

That is exactly what Dr. Robert Fleischer will address in Mary Baldwin University’s Mary E. Humphreys Biology Lecture, Trouble in Paradise: Disease, Genetics, and Conservation of Hawaii’s Birds, on April 6.

“This is a good opportunity for students to see how we can merge the two halves of biology together,” said Dr. Paul Callo, associate professor of biology. “We often hear about cellular and molecular biology and field biology as if they are two completely separate entities, but conservation biology is all about tying the two together.”

Fleischer, who has a PhD in evolutionary genetics, is head of the Smithsonian Institutions’ Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics at the National Zoological Park and National Museum of Natural History and is author or co-author of more than 170 peer-reviewed contributions to scientific literature. His current research, which involves application of DNA analyses, focuses on the evolutionary and conservation biology of Hawaiian birds.

“Everything is connected,” Callo said. “If the birds die, then what does that mean for other parts of the environment? What does that mean for the plants? The insects? Us? We can ignore these problems, but we ignore them at our own peril.”

The Mary Baldwin lecture series was established in 1992 by friends and former students of the late Mary Humphreys — who served on the biology faculty at Mary Baldwin for 25 years — to bring prominent scientists to the campus to present public talks. Past Humphreys lecturers have included “gene hunter” Dr. Francis Collins, who led the successful effort to complete Human Genome Project, and breast cancer researcher Dr. Nancy Davidson of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Fleischer’s talk will begin at 7:30 p.m. in Francis Auditorium in the Pearce Science Center. The event is free and open to the public.