Garth M. Spellman, PhD

Dr. Garth Spellman is curator of ornithology at the Museum. He grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, and developed a passion for biodiversity science through his first summer job as a lab assistant pinning beetle specimens in a paleontology lab at North Dakota State University. Garth went on to receive a BA in biology from Carleton College, an MSc in zoology from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and a PhD in biological sciences from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He began his professional scientific career at Black Hills State University, initially as a research professor and eventually moving on to become an associate professor. Garth then spent two years serving as a program director in the evolutionary processes cluster of the Division of Environmental Biology at the National Science Foundation. His peer-reviewed manuscripts have been featured in diverse scientific journals, and his work has been featured in several popular press articles and blogs. His research focuses on how recent and ancient environmental changes have affected bird species. Bird species are products of their environment and therefore are constantly evolving in response to environmental change. The response of a species to environmental change leaves lasting footprints in its DNA. Garth uses genetic tools to examine “bird DNA footprints” and determine just how a species or multiple species that make up a modern community have responded to past environmental change.

Comparative Phylogeography

Exploring how birds have evolved in response to landscape and climate change

The field of phylogeography uses genetic data to explore how Earth and life evolve together. A species’ range can be fragmented by landscape changes, or a population can be forced to move as climate shifts its niche. These changes leave footprints in the species’ or population’s DNA. By looking at the DNA of multiple species or populations that occupy the same habitats, we can begin to reveal how these environmental changes affected individual populations, species, and ultimately entire biotic communities.

Individual projects include:

Phylogeography of North American creepers

Phylogeography of North American nuthatches

Phylogeography of North American of vireos

Phylogeography of North American of the bushtit

Phylogeography of North American woodpeckers


John Klicka, Burke Museum, University of Washington

Joseph Manthey, Texas Tech University

Theresa Burg and Amanda Carpenter, University of Lethbridge

Evolutionary Genomics of Birds

Elucidating the evolutionary history of birds using clues hidden in their DNA

Birds are our muse, but evolutionary genomics is our passion. Every living thing on the planet possesses a history book within itself. This book is its genome. The alphabet is simple—only four letters; however, there are many authors. The authors are evolutionary processes, like natural selection, genetic drift, gene flow, and mutation. The productivity of the authors across evolutionary time waxes and wanes, and by reading their words through DNA sequencing, we can tease apart how each author has contributed to the writing of the book. 

Evolutionary genomics is a powerful method to answer a diverse array of scientific questions. Such questions include the following. Which author (evolutionary process) contributed to the evolution of feather color or beak shape in a particular species? How has a species or population responded to past or current climate and landscape changes? How did a certain species form, or what keeps species separate? 

These sorts of questions drive the current evolutionary genomic projects in our lab.

Individual Projects:

  • Evolutionary genomics of the brown creeper
  • Evolutionary genomics of the white-breasted nuthatch
  • Rise and fall of the San Benedicto Island rock wren
  • Evolutionary genomics of rosy finches


Back To Top