Kiwi Commentary

It looks like the commentary that I wrote with Lauryn Benedict write is now online (it may require journal access- feel free to email me if you aren’t able to get it through your university’s network and would like a copy). Lauryn and I share a lot of the same pedigree: we were undergrads at Cornell, then jointly advised by Walt Koenig and Eileen Lacey at UC Berkeley for our PhDs . We even did our field research in the same place- the Hastings Natural History Reservation in Carmel Valley. Lauryn studied another one of those common but not terribly well known birds, the California Towhee.

It’s fun to get to write something up with a friend and colleague like this. Our manuscript puts some context around a paper on vocal behavior and duetting in a species of kiwi.


Sage-grouse Cort Paper Out!

Jessica Blickley’s Conservation Biology paper on the impact of chronic anthropogenic noise on sage-grouse took over 18 months to go through review. Thankfully our more recent paper proceeded much more quickly, in fact, it just came out. May I present: Experimental Chronic Noise Is Related to Elevated Fecal Corticosteroid Metabolites in Lekking Male Greater Sage-Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus). This is in the journal PLoS One (PLoS = Public Library of Science, one of the first Open Access journals that charge a bit more for publishing but make the content freely available to everyone). The paper asks whether we can detect differences in traces of stress hormones in the poop of grouse that were on leks exposed to chronic noise versus control leks without the extra noise. The answer is yes, but like many things in science, the answer becomes a bit more complicated when you look at the details, or try to figure out what the results you find actually mean. There was a difference in the average level of corticosterone metabolites, but this wasn’t diagnostic. Additionally, it didn’t matter how close to the speakers the poop (and presumably the males) was, so the differences were shared across the entire lek. Still, further evidence that noise impacts are serious business for birds like sage-grouse, and are something management plans may want to take into account.

Jessica has another paper that just came out- this as the product of a seminar she took a couple of years ago. She and her colleagues put together a survey of job ads and questionnaires of people in charge of hiring conservation professionals- both to try to decode what skills ads are really asking for, and also to identify skills that graduate students might not get in the course of a “normal” PhD (whatever that is). It should be a really useful paper, and I’ll be sure to add it to one of the resources pages here next time I update those. So check out: Graduate Student’s Guide to Necessary Skills for Nonacademic Conservation Careers in Conservation Biology.

We’ve made some progress on several other fronts as well. We’ve gotten several other papers submitted, including a detailed look at fighting dynamics in male sage-grouse that I believe is our first paper making use of the high-speed video of male behavior. Another project we’ve gotten off of our desks is a characterization of the mechanical sounds in the sage-grouse, lead-authored by former undergrad and technician Becca Koch (now in a PhD program at Auburn). Gail and I also contributed to a paper on the negative effects of necklace-style transmitters in male-sage-grouse that included the acoustic analysis of one collared male with odd sounding displays. We have a few other manuscripts perched like baby birds at the nest hole, waiting to take that brave leap into the wide world of academic publishing. We should have at least one more paper make that leap before the end of the year. Big thanks to Gail for using much of her sabbatical to contend with some of this.

In other news, teaching is still the big focus, although I can’t believe how quickly it has gone. Only 4 more lectures in the quarter! I’m done with my other lectures for the time being (my City College of San Francisco seminar was on the previous Friday), but I’ve got several lectures, seminars, and meetings lined up for early in the new year including.

Phirst Phinishing PhD Students

We are back in Davis! The thousands of miles, the packing and unpacking, the dust and wind, are now firmly in the rearview mirror.

Our reason for getting back last week was that not one but TWO of Gail’s graduate students were giving exit seminars. The first was Jessica Yorzinski (I should say Dr. Yorzinksi- she is the first from the Patricelli Lab to complete her dissertation defense). Jessica has been working on an astounding number of projects during her time at Davis, but her focus has been on studying female gaze patterns during courtship in peafowl. She has set up and maintained a captive colony of male and female peafowl at a farm in Durham, North Carolina, and has trained the peafowl hens to wear eye-tracking headgear to monitor their eye movements when encountering males. This was definitely one of the more fearless dissertation projects I’ve ever seen, but Jessica managed to solve all manner of technical and other problems to answer the following question: when faced with such an elaborately ornamented suitor, just what do females actually look at? Jessica gave a fantastic seminar, and the beginnings of an answer to this question.

The second student was Teresa Iglesias, who presented her work on “cacophonous aggregations” in western scrub jays. Teresa noticed scrub jays would apparently alarm call when they encountered a dead jay, and other jays would come in to investigate. Teresa’s PhD involved a series of field experiments to test how jays respond to different stimuli (different sorts of dead birds, as well as predators), and also started to look what brain areas seem to be involved with these reactions. I really like Teresa’s project too- she focused on a common urban species, and was able to conducts a series of studies to explore a (probably common) but heretofore undescribed behavior that actually tells us a lot about how animals see the world. Teresa’s results suggest that scrub jays are alert to cues of risk, and that seeing a dead jay on the ground is a good sign to be vigilant or even avoid an area that may hide unseen dangers.

Congrats to Jessica and Teresa, and to Gail for launching her first graduates! You can contact them via the Grad Student Page on Gail’s website.

New Resources Page: Graduate School Advice

Many of the students working in our lab are planning to pursue a professional degree of some sort (medical school, vet school, dental school, pharmacy school, etc), but we always have a few who have “caught the bug”, so to speak, and consider graduate school in the biological sciences. In talking with them, many have a strong passion for the subject matter, but have very little idea of what the process is like to apply to graduate school, nor what graduate school is really like. I have been meaning to put together an advice FAQ to answer some common questions for a long time, and when Gail passed on Joan Strassman’s advice it finally spurred me to collect the other pieces of internet wisdom I’ve seen on this topic, and make a new page. I’ve got points of view from 6 faculty now, which should definitely serve as a good starting point for anyone who is considering graduate school, especially in the sub-fields of evolution or ecology.