RIP David Wake

Slender Salamander, Wildcat Canyon. David Wake contributed decades of important work on salamander biology.

Very sorry to learn about the passing of another colleague and mentor, David Wake. Dr. Wake was director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology when I first came to Berkeley. I was fortunate to be able to take his famous Evolution course my first year, and it was absolutely everything you would expect from a thoughtful giant in the field. My first year was filled with some uncertainty as I searched for a project with both of my advisors out of the country, but taking his class helped solidify my feeling that I was in the right place.



I wasn’t often in his immediate orbit in the Museum, but even so I quickly appreciated he was such a kind, thoughtful, and supportive person. Not just in a generic sharing pleasantries way but really seeing you and engaging in things he wanted to learn more about.

One of the biggest joys in my life was running into him at a conference several years after I left and getting to share with him that I was teaching Evolution at UC Davis.

Patricelli Teaching Award

Congrats to Gail, who won the Faculty Teaching Award at UC Davis earlier this year (this comes on the heels of the Mentorship award she received several years ago). There’s a full write-up here. Many of the best undergrads in the lab first approached us for research because they took her Animal Communication course. Well deserved accolades, Gail!


Additionally, check out the new lab web page, which includes some other honors for lab members.

Field season underway… without me!

In a previous field season, we dug shallow trenches to prepare for laying microphone cables at Monument Lek.

For most of the past decade, the 2nd week in March would find me fully entrenched (literally) in getting our sage-grouse research projects up and running. Not this year. I took on a winter quarter class at UC Davis, and won’t be joining the rest of the crew at Chicken Camp for another couple of weeks. I’m doing what I can to help Gail and Ryane from here, but so far I’ve missed some excitement in the form of minor vehicle and trailer calamities.

From what I’ve heard- it’s been a weirdly warm winter so far, with the area getting rain (rain!) as often as snow, and no permanent snow cover when they arrived at the field site. The males were already displaying on the leks, and attendance seems pretty good, although it’s hard to know how to interpret numbers.  Does more males relative to same date last year reflect an increase in the population, or that the season has advanced, or both? We should have a better answer for this once we see how the season plays out.

I’ve been teaching Behavioral Ecology in the WFCB department at UC Davis this quarter. I’ve never taught BE before, but the subject is definitely in my wheelhouse, and my past experience with Animal Behavior and Intro to Evolution classes have definitely given me something to work from. Hopefully the 60 students in WFC 141 have learned something this quarter! Now to write that exam!

2013 / 2014

Juvenile Male Sage-Grouse, Cottontail Lek

2014 already has it’s talons in me, but I am pausing a moment to share some recollections of 2013 that was.

Last year I built upon my first full teaching gig in 2012. I taught both Animal Behavior during the summer and Evolution in the fall of 2013. The summer course was challenging because of the accelerated pace and because of some necessary travel, both scheduled and unscheduled, in the middle of the summer term. I was thankful to have an excellent co-instructor (Jamie Bunting), and I think we ended up putting together a nice class. The fall evolution course went well. Having a set of notes to work from made a huge difference in my sanity- I no longer felt quite as much of a ‘trying-to-keep-up-on-a-high-speed treadmill’ feeling. This let me put a lot more of my effort into improving the course. I was much happier with the exams in terms of length and clarity, and the homeworks and discussion were better integrated with the lecture material. To some extent this was behind the scenes stuff, and led to (I think) a comfortable class in which expectations for both me and the students were clearly presented. I look forward to working harder on lecture formats and classroom interaction next time I teach.

Research-wise, we got several projects out the door. These included our collaboration with Sergio Pellis on fighting dynamics in the grouse, an applied paper on the effects of radio collars on male sage-grouse in conjunction with Dan Gibson and colleagues at the University of Nevada Reno, a commentary on the utility of avian vocal studies that rely on calls instead of songs (with my former labmate Lauryn Benedict), and a review of male cooperation that I completed with other lab mates Sam Diaz-Muñoz, Eileen Lacey, and Emily DuVal. We got some of sage-grouse work out the door as well, an acoustics paper led by Rebecca Koch and our laterality analysis- these are in revision though.

Male Sage-Grouse with the >30g Encounternet tag. Photo GLP.

Our new telemetry tags moved forward in 2013 as well. These tags are intended to give us an unprecedented window into the movement and activity of male grouse off the lek. We were able to do some proof of concept of them in the field at the end of the 2013 season. We followed that up with some testing of the accelerometer function by using some captive chickens in the Avian Sciences facility on campus. Now we’re just waiting for the final tags, and we’ll be ready to break a lot of new ground with our field studies in 2014.

Steamboat Springs, home of the Winter Animal Behavior Conference

2014 is already shaping up to be an exciting year. I got to attend the Winter Animal Behavior Conference a few weeks ago- this is a small, intimate meeting with just a few dozen top behavior folks. The conference strives for a really fun atmosphere. I presented some early analyses looking at differences in the distribution of male mating success on leks of different sizes. It feels great to finally be at the point where we can begin to leverage the multi-lek, multi-year nature of some of our data. I’m hoping that these sorts of analyses can complement our more focused studies and help round out the picture of how “negotiation” on the lek proceeds.

Sage-Grouse usually cut all but the base of the leaf.

Along with making use of our older data, we’re also breaking new ground in the field. In addition to the aforementioned tags, we will conduct our first systematic plant sampling to learn more about variation in quality of the food the sage-grouse depend on during the winter.



This year should see some important and much needed modernization of our workflows as well. We’re finally upgrading our fleet of video cameras to move away from miniDV tapes and onto recording into digital media files on SD cards. This change will necessitate a host of other lab upgrades, including new computer workstations for viewing the video files (we are currently using a trio of refurbished laptops that are literally falling apart) and a robust server to distribute the video files. We may also finally move at least some of our data into a true database instead of simple spreadsheets. These transitions will require quite a bit of planning, but on balance should be big improvements.

Teaching Update- Summer 2013

The six-week summer session Animal Behavior course (NPB 102) is over (or most of it, all that’s left is the grading). Thanks to my awesome co-instructor Jamie Bunting, who did a fantastic job this summer. Also thanks to Tom Hahn for the opportunity and all the advice and resources that helped make this a successful class. And Myfanwy, who is actually doing the grading, and Julie who stepped in to help proctor this morning. This was my first summer class and it was as challenging as I thought. Organization is tricky, with fewer lectures overall but each one being close to 2 hours, finding the balance of breadth and depth took a lot of thought.

The students seemed to respond positively- besides a general lack of drama, I’ve had one student approach me about research opportunities already, and another send a “ you guys are awesome” email. Anyway, nice to have this under my belt. Several nice “thank you’s” and “it was a very interesting class” as the exams came in as well.

Next up: I can start to turn my attention to teaching Introduction to Evolution (EVE 100)  this fall. I think it will be a vastly different experience this time around compared with last year when I was teaching it for the first time. My practice with online assessments in Animal Behavior this summer is giving me some ideas of how to change the homework a bit, hopefully freeing up some time and effort for everyone involved to add in some more interesting assignments. I also think I did a better job of integrating the textbook reading in with the lectures this time.