Kevin Johnson, a principal research scientist and curator of the bird collection at the Illinois Natural History Survey, is the recipient of the Prairie Research Institute’s 2020 Distinguished Research Scientist Award.
Johnson is an internationally recognized leader in the study of evolution, biogeography, and the natural history of birds and insects, especially the relationships between birds and the lice that live on them. One of his most notable contributions to science is the recognition that the co-evolution of birds, lice that live on them, and microbes that live in the lice provides a unique opportunity to study how evolutionary opportunities are constrained by the structure of genomes. Specifically, he documented that lice that feed on feathers (a food source that is abundant on birds and costs very little but lacks certain nutrients) have repeatedly and independently established endosymbiotic relationships with a previously free-living bacterium (genus Sodalis); Sodalis living in the guts of lice can synthesize B vitamins that are lacking in feathers. This repeated establishment of a symbiotic relationship between closely related lice and microbes represents an unmatched example of replicated evolution and has resulted in a grant from the National Science Foundation.
In addition to his research, as curator of the INHS and University of Illinois bird collections he manages approximately 3,500 specimens of 157 species.
Johnson recently answered a few questions about his work.
You wear a couple of hats at INHS, conducting research and managing the bird collections. What aspects of your job do you enjoy the most?
I really enjoy making new discoveries that come from research projects. I enjoy the process of obtaining new data. It is very exciting to get results on scientific questions that no one has known the answer to before. For example, my research group studies genome sequences from birds and insects to understand how species are related to each other. This almost always leads to new discoveries and surprises.
What is the current focus of your research?
My current research focuses on using genome sequencing data to uncover the tree of life for birds and their ectoparasitic feather lice. I then use this information to uncover the pattern of host-switching in this group of parasites. Uncovering how and why host-switches happen in general provides background knowledge for a deeper understanding of the factors that might lead to the emergence of novel human infectious diseases that result from this process.
Can you describe how the bird collections contribute to your research and research done by others?
The bird collections at the INHS are a very valuable resource for current and future understanding of birds, because they provide a long term documentation of the birds of Illinois and other regions. For my own research, the collections provide an opportunity to obtain parasites from new bird specimens that are prepared for the collection. The collections have also been used by several other researchers at the University of Illinois, including studies of plumage coloration and other topics.
What things do you wish more people knew about your field, or what are the misconceptions that you think people may have about your area of expertise?
One of the topics that is the focus of my research is the systematics of the parasitic lice of birds. Most people don’t realize that nearly all species of birds have lice that eat their feathers. A bird hosts a community of parasites and other associated organisms. Knowing this changes the way we see birds.
What led you to specialize in ornithology?
From about three years old, I was always very interested in birds and enjoyed watching them. At a young age I wanted to be an ornithologist, although I often got funny looks when I told people that is “what I wanted to be when I grew up.” Luckily I was able to get into graduate school to study ducks for my thesis and have been able to continue in ornithology ever since. I feel fortunate that I have been able to have a career in something I am passionate about.
You’ve had a wide-ranging career. What project or accomplishment are you most proud of?
One aspect of my research that I am proud of is developing techniques to use whole genome sequences in studies of molecular systematics. My research group pioneered several novel methods and was the first to apply these genomic methods to studies of birds and insects. I am also proud of the fact that I have had continuous funding from the National Science Foundation for my research since the beginning of my career at the INHS.
How do you feel about receiving the Distinguished Research Scientist Award?
Receiving the 2020 PRI Distinguished Research Scientist Award is an honor and a privilege for me.