Studying How Species Evolve

Here, J. Albert C. Uy and his wife, UM researcher Floria Mora-Kepfer Uy, return to Frigatebird Island, part of the Solomon Islands, after conducting fieldwork. Photo courtesy of Day’s Edge Productions.

By Robert C. Jones, Jr.

Here, J. Albert C. Uy and his wife, UM researcher Floria Mora-Kepfer Uy, return to Frigatebird Island, part of the Solomon Islands, after conducting fieldwork. Photo courtesy of Day’s Edge Productions.

Studying How Species Evolve

By Robert C. Jones, Jr.
Documentary film ‘Islands of Creation’ captures UM researcher’s fascinating speciation studies.

An evolutionary biologist fascinated by the way new species evolve, J. Albert C. Uy has longed to have his research featured in a film geared toward the general public. But concerns over the way some nature documentaries distort science always dissuaded him from collaborating with filmmakers.

Then, three years ago, Uy got an interesting call that abated his distrust. Nate Dappen and Neil Losin, founders of a company that produces multimedia stories for academic and nonprofit clients, wanted to produce a film on the research Uy was conducting in the Solomon Islands. It wasn’t so much the idea of participating in the project that intrigued the University of Miami researcher as it was the fact that Dappen, a UM alumnus, and Losin are also evolutionary biologists—which, Uy surmised, would ensure the accuracy of the end product.

So with funding secured from a now-defunct National Science Foundation program, Uy and the two filmmakers embarked on a two-year endeavor. The result, Islands of Creation, a one-hour documentary produced by Day’s Edge Productions, promises to captivate viewers with a look into Uy’s ongoing research in the Solomons. The one-hour film debuts in July on the Smithsonian Channel, which co-produced the documentary.

The Aresty Chair in Tropical Ecology in UM’s College of Arts and Sciences, Uy is understandably excited—and nervous—about the advance screening.

“As scientists, we don’t have many outlets to get our work out to the public,” he said. “While I’ve written popular magazine articles before, this is really the first major undertaking to make my work more accessible to the general public, to translate our basic science research to the community.”

Uy’s research could help unlock the secrets to speciation and the remarkable diversity of our planet’s animal life. For the past nine years, he and his team of student researchers have traveled to Makira, the largest island of Makira-Ulawa Province in the Solomon Islands archipelago, to study how a genetic mutation has caused two closely related populations of monarch flycatcher birds to split into separate species.

“It’s a one-in-a-million occurrence,” explained Uy. “What’s most apparent about the change is the color of their plumage and the kinds of songs they sing.”

Through visually stunning cinematography, Losin and Dappen (who were once postdoctoral researchers in Uy’s lab) track Uy as he investigates that “one-in-a-million occurrence,” following the researcher as he captures birds, collects data, and trains locals to assist in his research.

Uy has been investigating the origin of new species ever since he read and became fascinated by the research of legendary evolutionary biologists Jared Diamond and Ernst Mayr as a graduate student at the University of Maryland.

“Mayr wrote several books and papers describing what he saw in the Solomons,” said Uy. “He was one of the first to propose that some of these bird species are on the verge of becoming new species. I like to say that I’ve been standing on the shoulders of giants like Mayr, taking up where they left off and visiting some of these islands to see if those birds are, indeed, becoming new species.”

The Solomon Islands are ideal for studying speciation, Uy says, because of their remoteness. “They’re evolutionary experiments,” he explained. “Each, presumably, is independent. So whatever is on that island is going to change on its own.”

But observing that process in the wild is like winning the lottery. Fortunately for Uy, he’s hit the jackpot, studying a population of monarch flycatchers just as they arrive at that evolutionary rift.

Uy, Losin, and Dappen, who earned his Ph.D. in evolutionary biology and behavioral ecology at UM in 2012, are scheduled to attend the April 23 screening of Islands of Creation. Tickets to the screening are free, but an RSVP is required at