Research

My approach to science utilizes direct observation of nature as a starting point, and proceeds to field and lab experiments where possible. I am interested in using my research as a tool for training undergraduates how to do science and how to more effectively observe nature.

1) Evolution of plumage and vocalizations in Manacus manakins

Christian Manakin edited

Golden-Collared Manakin male entering “beard-up” position during courtship display. Photo: Christian Ziegler

For my Ph.D., I studied behavioral interactions between two species of lek-breeding birds, manakins in the genus Manacus,  which hybridize in western Panama.  I am interested in how  vocalizations used in territorial defense and mate attraction, are perceived both within and between species at species contact zones, especially in tropical regions where many closely related species can co-exist or are in close proximity.  More specifically, I studied how vocal signals facilitate the movement of some plumage traits (and their underlying genes) from one species to the other, while simultaneously maintaining genetic and phenotypic distinctiveness between species in other parts of the genome.

Measuring the epaulets on an undescribed Manacus subspecies on Isla Bastimentos.

Measuring the epaulets on an undescribed Manacus subspecies on Isla Bastimentos.

More recently, my work has taken me to Caribbean “landbridge” islands just offshore from the mainland hybrid zone, where previously unstudied populations of Manacus are providing insight into the history of phenotypes found on the adjacent mainland. For this work, I am using a combination of molecular genetics analysis and morphometric analysis from specimens in the field and museums.

The bird above was caught near this beach on Isla Bastimentos.

The bird above was caught near this beach on Isla Bastimentos.

More information on this work can be found here: Research at Bocas del Toro Station

Over the years, I have also collaborated with researchers at UCLA on the neuro-endocrinology of manakins. You can see some of this work under the publications tab, but click here for an amusing cartoon by one of my students, Monica White, about one of my experiments.

The white-collared manakin at La Selva, Costa Rica. Note the yellow tinge on the collar. Is this mutation spreading in this population? Time will tell.

The white-collared manakin at La Selva, Costa Rica. Note the yellow tinge on the collar–NOT normal for the white-collared manakin. Is this mutation spreading in this population? Time will tell, but until then you can read my paper, published with Federico Prado and Ben Kerr, modeling the spread of novel traits in animals with lek-breeding systems.

Bocas habitat loss

It is hard not to be interested in conservation issues at my research sites. A population boom is leading the Ngobe tribe to build homes further and further into the forest (such as here on a former manakin lek site), and in many ways you can’t blame them because there are few other options. This is to say nothing of the far worse tourism boom in the region that in many places seems to be immune to environmental regulations. It is hard to conduct basic science in the tropics without also being interested in conservation. These issues prompted me to get involved with environmental education in the region, as well as write several articles in local newspapers (on my publications page) aimed at exposing some of the issues in the region.

Thank you to the many UW undergrads, local field technicians, researchers, and other friends and colleagues who have assisted me in this work over the years.

This research is sponsored by the following organizations:

  • American Museum of Natural History
  • National Museum of Natural History
  • Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
  • Organization for Tropical Studies
  • Association of Field Ornithologists
  • Univ. of Wash. Snyder Award
  • Univ. of Wash. Snyder Award

 

2) The importance of natural history study and environmental education

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About to begin a survey for stream invertebrates with a Costa Rican school group.

This is a broad area of interest for me. Recently I have been involved with the Natural History Network, helping to reinvigorate natural history education at all academic levels, especially at the college level. In collaboration with a number of other authors who are also part of the network, we recently demonstrated in a paper published in BioScience that natural history training has become progressively de-emphasized in biology curricula over the past 30 years. I have been directly involved throughout my career in natural history education at all levels and styles, from elementary school to university, from art to science, and in many different settings from the urban farm to wilderness. I am currently interested in the best strategies for producing the next generation of ecologically conscious leaders as we hurtle headlong into the unknown frontiers of the Anthropocene. I believe that natural history should be a part of those strategies, although it is certainly not the only part. I believe that there is no better time than the present to rigorously test the outcomes of the various ways in which we conduct environmental education and we need to be thinking hard about how we can reach the broadest audience possible. While it is likely there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach, it would be helpful to know what the benefits of different kinds of programs are, how they influence their participants, how long this influence lasts, and how environmental education can best achieve its goals of reaching a broad audience and achieving a sustainable society. Ultimately, this will help us shape a vision for environmental education for the future, a vision that I think should include natural history education. Afterall, without an appreciation for natural history it is hard to understand the natural systems humans are a part of, and the moral imperative humans have to preserve natural systems for their own good!

With undergraduate student, Shane Kelly, I am currently doing a comparative analysis of 3 of my field courses (all centered around natural history in the field, yet taught in different formats) to understand the impacts of different field course formats on students.

3) Understanding causes and dynamics of sword fern (Polystichum munitum) die-off in a Seattle city park.

UW undergraduates, Kramer Canup and Tristan O'Mara lay out a permanent monitoring plot in the understory of Seattle's Seward Park.

UW undergraduates, Kramer Canup and Tristan O’Mara lay out a permanent monitoring plot in the understory of Seattle’s Seward Park.

I am working with undergraduates and neighborhood citizens to document the dynamics of a mysterious die-off of sword ferns in a local Seattle city park.  We are monitoring for spread of the problem (or natural recovery) and looking for causes of the problem. We are about to begin experimental work to address these issues and to develop strategies for future restoration. Please consult the following blog post for more details (and initial results) on this recently begun research project.

4) The past and present ecology of the American chestnut, and response of northern hardwood forests to the loss of chestnut

As an undergraduate at Williams College, I was interested in plant

The American chestnut was one of the largest and most ecologically important hardwoods in eastern North America before it was virtually eliminated by an introduced fungal pathogen. This famous historical photo was taken in North Carolina (courtesy http://www.ourstate.com/american-chestnut/). My undergraduate thesis explored the historical role of chestnut in western Massachusetts, and the response of today's forests to the loss of chestnut. Surprisingly, chestnut saplings still sprout from the buried root systems of large trees that are long-gone, giving the species an entirely new ecological role.

The American chestnut was one of the largest and most ecologically important hardwoods in eastern North America before it was virtually eliminated by an introduced fungal pathogen. This famous historical photo was taken in North Carolina (courtesy http://www.ourstate.com/american-chestnut/). Remarkably, chestnut saplings still sprout from the buried root systems of large trees that are long-gone, giving the species an entirely new ecological role.

landscape ecology. On the publications tab of this site, you can read about my research on the past and present role of the American chestnut in northern hardwood forests, and the ecological response of these forests to the loss of chestnut. Below is our student survey crew ca. 1996 surveying a “milacre” plot for tree seedlings and herbaceous plants at a former chestnut site (photo courtesy Williams College). The data we collected in the 1990s were part of a long-term study of permanent forest plots that was started in the 1920s. Amazingly, the most recent 20-year forest survey was just completed by a current crop of Williams undergraduates. I hope to add these new data to

HMF census

Hopkins Memorial Forest Survey Crew, ca. 1996, estimating percent cover of each herb species on a milacre plot. (Photo courtesy of Williams College).

my previous research, to get a nearly a 100 year perspective on ecological change at this site.