It’s not just what you have but how you use it – Continuing the story of my dissertation

A little less than two years ago, I wrote a guest blog post for the Oxford University Press about my first dissertation chapter. I just realized, however, that I did not end up writing follow up posts on my other dissertation chapters. Therefore, I decided, both as a way to get back into blogging and to continue the story of my dissertation, I will write a blog post for each of my other dissertation chapters, with another post or two on how the work has continued since my dissertation.

First, a brief reminder of where the story of my dissertation began. I was interested in understanding the diversity and evolution of hummingbird iridescent coloration and courtship dances. I was particularly excited to study how male hummingbirds used their dances and the environment to manipulate their angle-dependent iridescent coloration.

Throughout my work, I termed these color manipulation events as “signal interactions” because the behavioral signals, color signals, and the environment in which the signaling took place were all interacting with each other to produce how males appeared to females during courtship. I also used the term “male color appearance during displays” or “color appearance” for short to describe this signal interaction product. To provide a little more context and examples, though my first dissertation chapter, I found that some male hummingbirds use their behaviors and the environment to manipulate their iridescent feathers to create a flashy, strobe-like color appearance. Think of someone dancing in a sequin outfit – when they move about, their outfit will sparkle and flash, which is similar to what some hummingbirds do. Other hummingbirds maintain a very consistent color appearance during courtship. In other words, they behaviorally and environmentally manipulate their iridescent coloration to not change color as they dance.

A male Costa’s hummingbird dancing for a female.

In addition to finding this variation in male color appearance during displays, I also wanted to understand what exactly was driving that variation. One of the main findings from my first chapter was that how males oriented towards the sun greatly influenced their color appearance. Some males tended to face away from the sun as they courted females, and these males tended to have the consistent color appearances. Other males tended to face towards the sun as they courted females, and these males tended to have the flashy color appearances. There were also multiple aspects of each male’s display that influenced their color appearance, such as how they oriented towards the female as they danced. Also, all of the work for my first chapter was on broad-tailed hummingbirds.

Broad-tailed hummingbird male, photo taken by me

So, the main findings from my first chapter were 1) male hummingbirds use courtship dances and the environment to manipulate their iridescent plumage to produce two types of color appearances for females – flashy color appearances and consistent color appearances; and 2) male hummingbirds vary in how they orient towards the sun as they dance for females, which in turn predicts their color appearance.

For my second chapter, which I published in Ecology Letters in 2018, I wanted to better understand how male iridescent plumage, courtship dances, and the environment were interacting to produce male color appearance. Did one or more of those traits play a stronger role in the production of color appearance? For example, did males with brighter and more colorful plumage appear brighter and more colorful? Or could males with any sort of plumage be able to achieve a variety of color appearances through their dances? These were the questions I aimed to study going into my second dissertation chapter. For this work, I shifted to a different hummingbird species, the Costa’s hummingbird.

A male Costa’s hummingbird, photo taken by me.

Costa’s hummingbirds are desert specialists, unlike the high elevation broad-tailed hummingbirds, and Costa’s hummingbirds are very abundant in southern California, where I studied them. I used the same field techniques as I did for my first chapter. I used caged females to elicit and film male courtship dances (second video). I captured those males who danced and collected a few feathers from them. I used video tracking software to map male movements and plumage orientations towards the sun and female during courtship dances. And finally, I used a tool I built, which I called the lazy Susan apparatus, to take male feathers and move them through a re-created male courtship dance and quantify the appearance of those feathers as they moved through the dance.

My filming set up – a caged female used to elicit male dances, with my camera filming from below. Note – I had all required permits for this research and no hummingbirds were harmed. All hummingbirds were released after capture.
My lazy Susan apparatus that allowed me to move hummingbird feathers, which were taped on to the wooden block, through a male’s recreated display. I also could turn the block, which was on the lazy Susan swivel to mimic how the male oriented himself towards the female. I would then photograph the feathers using a special full-spectrum DSLR camera from the female’s point of view.

Altogether, I had data on male courtship dance behaviors, solar orientation, and color appearance, just as I did for my first chapter. However, in this chapter I made two major additions. Firstly, I had a much higher sample size, meaning I filmed more courtship dances from more males, which allowed me to do more complex statistical analyses. And secondly, I took those plucked feathers and also took objective color measurements of the feathers outside of their behavioral and environmental contexts. In other words, instead of only measuring color appearance during a display, I took standardized measurements of feather color. Namely, I measured feather reflectance using a spectrometer. This allowed me to test whether males with innately more colorful or brighter feathers appeared more colorful or brighter during their display. Also, because iridescent feathers change color depending on the angles in which they are illuminated or observed, I used the spectrometer to measure how angle-dependent each male’s feathers were. This allowed me to test whether males with more angle-dependent feathers appeared flashier during their displays.

Using all of these data, I created a series of statistical models that tested the predictive influence of male courtship dances, feather reflectance, and solar orientation on male color appearance – both in terms of flashiness and how bright and colorful males appeared on average. First, I should note that unlike male broad-tailed hummingbirds, which exhibited a large variation in how they oriented towards the sun, nearly all male Costa’s hummingbirds faced the sun as they displayed.

Boyd Deep Canyon, in Southern California, where I studied male Costa’s hummingbirds, photo taken by me.

Okay, back to my models. I found that while all three signaling traits – feather reflectance, behavior, and the sun – predicted variation I male color appearance, but variation in male behavior and especially solar orientation were much stronger predictors of color appearance than feather reflectance. To me this was very exciting, because it meant that even the males who had drabber plumage to begin with were able to behaviorally and environmentally manipulate their iridescent coloration to appear bright, colorful, and flashy. This finding lead to my cheeky paper title – “It’s not just what you have, but how you use it.”

These results have large implications for understanding color signaling in general. Many researchers who study how animals use color as a signal, such as to attract males (like the hummingbirds) or to ward off predators or rivals, measure the color of a given animal outside of their behavioral and environmental contexts. In other words, they use a spectrometer, or something similar, to measure color reflectance, as I did in the lab. However, my results here demonstrate that knowing color reflectance does not tell the whole story. In fact, it might not even be telling any story, because of how animals, like my hummingbirds, can manipulate their color to change how it appears. My big hope for color signal research going forward is that researchers focus more on how animals are behaviorally using their colorful signals and how these signals are interacting with the environment, which I believe will go a long way into helping us understand why and how animals use color to communicate.

Costa’s hummingbird male in hand.

Here is the full citation for my second dissertation chapter, which again was published in Ecology Letters:

Simpson, RK, McGraw, KJ. 2018. It’s not just what you have, but how you use it: solar-positional and behavioural effects on hummingbird colour appearance during courtship. Ecology Letters, 21: 1413-1422. PDF

Next time, I will write about my third dissertation chapter, which builds upon my first two chapters by comparing male hummingbird signals and signal interactions across species. More soon!

Interesting foraging behavior observation in juncos

When I first started this blog, I mentioned that I would write about natural history observations from my fieldwork. I have written natural history-ish things, mostly about hummingbirds or describing hikes I have done, but here is a true natural history observation I made while doing fieldwork back in Arizona that I was thinking about recently. The main character in this observation is the yellow-eyed junco (Junco phaeonotus):

An adult yellow-eyed junco.

Now these are actually yellow-eyed juncos, not the red-backed dark-eyed junco morph, which looks like the yellow-eyed (look at the eye color for confirmation). The location of this story is Mount Lemon, just outside of Tucson, Arizona, in the Santa Catalina Mountains. I was up around 7000 feet (2134 meters) near the Rose Canyon Campground and Rose Canyon Lake. Yellow-eyed juncos like to hang out in pine-oak or other coniferous forests, that are fairly open, like the one I was in, so they were quite common and easy to observe there.

Juncos are in the new world sparrow family Passerellidae and, in my opinion, are some of the more interestingly colored sparrows. This species, as many in the family, primarily feeds on seeds and insects while foraging on the ground. And my observation focuses on an interesting foraging behavior I observed.

A juvenile yellow-eyed junco foraging.

I was in the area looking for broad-tailed hummingbirds to help a documentary crew film their breeding and courtship behavior. As a note, there were also a ton of broad-tailed hummingbirds in this area. I arrived several days before the crew showed up, which gave me the opportunity to explore the area a bit – mostly scouting for hummingbirds. I was sitting on a tree stump, after a bout of hummingbird scouting, and I saw some of these juncos feeding on grass seeds along the road. I do not know what species of grass they were feeding on, but the seeds were on the top of the long, thin grass stalks.

A view of the thin, tall grass along the roadside with a junco foraging.

Given that these grass stalks were too thin and weak to support a perched bird, I figured the juncos were either hopping up to grab seeds mid-flight or just eating seeds that had fallen on the ground. Instead, I saw something I found to be very intriguing. The juncos were flying up to just below where the seeds were on the grass stem and landing on the stem, which brought the stem back down to the ground. Then these birds would stand on the bent over stem, holding it down with one or both feet, and eat the seeds from the stem tip, which was now laying on the ground at their feet. Once they finished harvesting the seeds on one grass stem, they would release it and repeat the behavior on the next one.

A view of an adult junco holding down the grass stem with its foot on the ground. You can see the bent stem to the left of the bird.

I thought this was so peculiar that I sat there and watched them for a while. Maybe this is not such an unusual behavior for sparrows, but I had never seen something like this before and thought it was quite clever of the birds. I would be curious to know if anyone has observed something similar to this or if any research has been done on behaviors such as these in sparrows or other ground foraging seed-eaters.

Another view of this interesting behavior.

And that is my natural history observation – I hope you enjoy it!

My advice for writing scientific grants

This is actually a post I’ve been thinking about writing for a while now. But before I get started on giving my advice on writing grants, I want to give a little bit about my experience in grant writing, to give a little more substance and context to the advice. While I was in graduate school, I wrote a lot of grant applications, and by a lot I mean 71 different grants over those six years. Of those 71 grants, I had 42 of them successfully funded (59%), which totaled to over $100,000 USD. These grants ranged from small $500 grants to large, $20,000 multi-year project proposals, like the now defunct NSF DDIG (sadness). I also took a grant writing course during my first year of grad school and have received feedback on my grants from many different professors, post-docs, and grad-students. However, I will say that my grant writing experiences could still be very different from yours, especially if you are outside of the United States or in a very different field than me. So, disclaimer: these are my thoughts and opinions and they do not guarantee grant success, though these writing practices did work very well for me.

Now to get down to it. How does one write a successful grant? Well the first thing to do is carefully and thoroughly read the grant call or ad. This might sound obvious, but I have found many people do not do this, and often get their grant applications quickly rejected for various reasons related to this. Why is it so important to read the call? First of all, the grant call will describe what the grant is for – the specific scientific discipline or the type of work (for example – field work) – and who the grant will be reviewed by, which is of critical importance! If the grant is going to be reviewed by a general science audience (I am still assuming an academic audience here) then be sure to avoid discipline specific terms and narrow viewpoints. If the grant will be reviewed by specific sub-disciplines, for example if you are writing a taxa-specific grant, then make sure to mold your grant into something related to and important within that sub-topic or taxa. Also, some grants will request or require specific sections within your materials, such as a conservation impact statement or statement of ethical consideration, which you would do well to include if you want to be seriously considered. Finally, the grant call will often lay out the specifics of the budget or funding uses, which are also very important (see below).

Read everything carefully!

Next is actually writing the body of the grant – the introduction, purpose, proposed methods etc. I have sat on several different grant reviewing committees and have read a wide array of grants in terms of writing quality. One of the first things I notice is how well the grantee introduces their subject and why I (or the reviewer should care). A grant that starts out with something like “For this study, we will test how the iridescent feathers in black-chinned hummingbirds interact during male courtship displays which alters how those feathers appear to females to better understand how these traits evolved” is a terrible way to start a grant. There is no broader picture painted or lead up to the complex idea that is being tested and this is a very specific, out of context, research question that might interest one person out there, which is typically the person writing the grant. Instead, a grant on this topic should start out much broader, such as “Animals exhibit an incredible diversity of exaggerated traits that they use for communication, such as colorful peacock tails or the roars of lions, leading to the question of why this diversity evolved?” This introduction puts forth a much broader concept that is typically interesting to a wider audience: understanding the diversity of traits animal use to communicate. Additionally, it uses more widely known examples – pretty much everyone knows what a peacock looks like or what a lion sounds like, whereas fewer people might know the specific color patterns and courtship behaviors of a black-chinned hummingbird (though if you check out these videos you will now know!). My point in all of this is that you need to start broad with your grant introduction and then narrow down on your particular project. You have to hook the grant reviewer to get them interested, and then draw them in slowly to keep ahold of that interest. And you also must absolutely avoid jargon! None of this cell line XD72k or gene 338s7893. Those details often don’t matter, or if they are critical to the project, put them in the methods with a brief explanation.

Black-chinned hummingbird

After you have written the introduction or background to your grant, be sure to clearly state the purpose of your study. What is the specific question you are testing? What is your hypothesis? If you can fit in predictions, even better! I know some grants are very limited space-wise, but these are important parts of a grant so that you show that you not only understand the background and potential importance of your work, but that you have designed a clearly laid out study. In the end, the grant reviewers want to fund projects that they think will a) actually occur, and b) be successful. And by successful, I do not mean that you will get the exact results you want, but that the project will be completed and yield some sort of results that will hopefully be publishable.

This brings me to another point, which is more about project design in general, but still relevant here. Be sure that the study you have designed and are proposing in your grant is not answering an all-or-nothing type question. By this I mean, be sure that when you get your results, if they do not end up as you predicted, that they will still be interesting, and not mean nothing. There are too many studies out there, where if the exact results predicted are not obtained, then there is no alternative hypothesis or conclusion. That is just bad experimental design.

For the methods of the grant, be thorough but brief. You need to make it clear that you have a concrete plan and know what you are doing, but do you not have to write out every detail for your experiments (and you will often not have the space to do so). Use citations to help fill in extraneous details or shorten the methods section. And again, keep the text free of jargon, especially if this is a more general science grant. I’ve had to write grants/methods as a behavioral and evolutionary ecologist that a molecular biologist would have to understand, and you likely will too.

Explaining complex methods in a sentence or three can be very hard, I know, but its good practice to learn how – it will help you with grants, paper writing, and conveying your research to a non-academic audience.

One of the last parts of a grant is often the proposed budget. This is another place where I have seen many mistakes in grants that ended up sinking the proposal completely. The first major piece of advice I have is do not propose a budget that is higher than what the grant can provide. The ONLY time you can do this, is if you have already obtained funding to match what will be required outside of the grant you are applying to AND you mention this in the budget. This is very important, because if the maximum grant award is $2000 for a specific grant, and you write a project with a budget for $5000 without evidence that you have the remanding funds, then you will not get funded, because if you receive the $2000 from this grant, but do not obtain the remaining $3000, then your project will fail. If your project does require a bigger budget than the grant you are writing for, then focus down what you ask for and/or request funds for specific components. For example, if you are requesting funds for fieldwork – shorten the length of the work to fit within the grant’s budget. Then apply for more grants and if you get them, you can go back to your originally planned field season length, but if you do not, you can at least work in the field for some time, which is better than none!

Fieldwork on a budget – couldn’t afford a rental truck, so we improvised a way to carry our materials to the field!

Another common mistake with budget writing comes from not reading the grant call specifics, as I mentioned above. Some grants, especially societal grants, will have restrictions on what they can fund. For example, many grants will specifically say that they will not fund hired help or field assistants. Well, if you request money for a field assistant, then you will not get that grant. Only ask for what the grant allows you to ask for.

To avoid having an overly long post, the last thing I will suggest here is get someone, especially your advisor if you can, to read your grant and give you feedback. At the very least they can help catch poor grammar, confusing wording, or spelling errors, which can easily sink a grant as well. I have often received incredibly helpful advice on the phrasing of certain parts of my grants, which ultimately made it into the papers produced from the funded work, which leads me to another point. If you write a good grant introduction and methods section, you can easily expand them into a future paper, saving you both time and energy in the long run. I have done this with several of my dissertation chapters myself.

I hope to see you in the field!

I hope this advice will be helpful for when you write your next grant, and please let me know if they are or if you have any further suggestions! If there is enough interest, I may write a second post on this topic as well. Best of luck to you all with your grant writing!

What is a post-doc? And what am I doing as one?

It has been quite some time since I last wrote a blog post, and I decided that for my first post back, I would talk about my current position in academia: a post-doctoral fellow. When I last checked in, I posted that I was moving to Canada and starting a post-doctoral position in Dr. Stephanie Doucet’s lab. But what is a post-doctoral position, or post-doc for short? Well a post-doc is an in-between phase, where I am no longer a graduate student, but I am also not yet a professor. Due to the small number of available academic jobs each year, people who finish their PhDs often do not get professor positions right out of grad school. Instead we take up research focused positions in, typically, another lab, where we learn new techniques, ask new questions, and/or expand our previous work. Post-docs do not usually have to teach, so we have much more time to conduct research and write, which is a huge benefit for being a post-doc. We are also much more independent and are often semi-autonomous with our work. A post-doc was once described to me as a time to conduct another dissertation on a shorter time scale (1-3 years), but with all the knowledge and experience from grad school helping streamline and expatiate the research process.

There are two mains types of post-doc positions. The first is where you write a fellowship, for example through the National Science Foundation or the Cornell Lab of Ornithology post-doctoral fellowship. Some consider this type of post-doc ideal, because you join a lab with your own money and are conducting your project, not helping/conducting your advisor’s project(s). While this freedom is definitely a boon, the other type of post-doc is no less ideal. For the second type of post-doc, you join a lab on the PI’s, or principle investigator’s, money. This typically means that you are conducting research on an already established project or grant proposal and might have less freedom to do whatever you want, research-topic-wise. However, these post-docs can be quite ideal positions as well, because you can have more structure to be productive, and the position “forces” you to learn new techniques/study-systems/research ideas, which can help you further develop as a scientist. Now, the fellowship-type post-doc also provides plenty of opportunities for you to learn new things as well, so I would say neither is necessarily better than the other. It really just depends on the lab you join, your advisor, the source of funding, and YOU, which can result in a plethora of different experiences.

My post-doc is the second type of post-doc, where I joined a lab on my advisor’s funding. There were many reasons I took up this position over others. Firstly, my wife and I were both looking for post-docs, which is a difficult situation to be in as it is hard enough to find one post-doc, and the post-docs we both found were only 2 hours apart, so we could live together as I commuted to work (which is only twice a week currently). Secondly, it was one of my post-doc advisor’s papers that inspired my entire dissertation, so it is really awesome to be working with the person who had that level of influence on my research. And thirdly, I am able to work on several different projects with Stephanie, allowing me to expand my research along multiple avenues. Overall I am very lucky to have found such a great position and advisor!

Pine Warbler

There are three main research thrusts for my post-doc. The first is a continuation of some work I started during my dissertation, which is to conduct electron microscopy on hummingbird feathers to study and quantify the surface and internal structures of their iridescent feathers. Electron microscopy is a technique that allows me to look at feathers as a very, very small scale, much smaller than your typical light microscope, and allows me to look at the micro- and nano-structures in the feather that interact with light to produce the brilliant colors we see in hummingbird feathers. This project is another reason I wanted to work with Stephanie, as she has conducted this type of work in the past.

The second project I am conducting is a continuation of a project Stephanie and her former master’s student (Allison) started several years ago. We are working to understand the evolution of wood-warbler plumage coloration. First, we tested how variation in breeding habitat, nest predation, outside of pair matings (males/females copulate with individuals that are not their social mate to acquire additional offspring), and other related variables to understand how sexual and natural selection are working simultaneously to drive color evolution. This part of the project is actually already written up and will hopefully be submitted for publication soon! We are also working to understand how species range overlap (how much each specie’s range overlaps with another species’ range) predicts color evolution, with the idea being that the more you overlap with other species, the more different your plumage color will be compared to those overlapping species. This part of the project is allowing me to learn several new comparative statistics techniques, which I am thoroughly enjoying!

Finally, the third research project of my post-doc is working with local vineyards to help them both better prevent birds from eating all of their grapes and to evaluate grape ripeness using color. This is a more applied research project, which is great for me, because it is a new opportunity to study questions of color function and evolution in an entirely new context. We will be starting this project later this year, so we are still in the development stages of it, but I am excited to see what happens!

I hope that that this post was both informative about what post-docs are and provided you with an update about the research I am currently conducting. I am excited about all of the new opportunities I have been granted through working with Stephanie, and I have also been fortunate to have many opportunities to interact with a diversity of other research labs both at my university, University of Windsor, and my wife’s university, University of Western Ontario. Overall, I have had a great start to my post-doc and hope to have many more exciting updates in the future!

Evolution of color production mechanisms

I am using the incredible diversity of mechanisms that produce animal coloration to understand the evolution of signal production. Through a multi-university collaboration, I was able to help uncover how carotenoid-based coloration (e.g. typically the reds and yellows in birds) evolved through an ordered evolutionary pathway of carotenoid modification and deposition into bird feathers in Fringillid finches (Ligon, Simpson, et al. 2015). Now, I am using scanning and transmission electron microscopy to measure the surface and internal structures of hummingbird feathers and test how these feather structures vary among species, predict variation in feather color, and possibly co-evolved with courtship behaviors.

My other research themes:
1. Sensory and evolutionary ecology of animal signals and their diversity
2. Mechanisms and evolution of signal interactions

Behavioral and environmental modulation of signals

While communicating, animals can use behaviors and the environment to modulate their signals, either to increase their effectiveness or potentially create unique signal properties. For example, during hummingbird courtship a male’s iridescent throat plumage is oriented and positioned towards females and the sun in specific ways through their courtship dances to alter how their plumage appears throughout their dance. Thus, the male’s behavior and signaling environment modulate the appearance of that male’s colorful plumage to the female creating a unique signal property (color appearance) not possible outside of this context. Using six North American hummingbird species as my study system, my research in this theme focuses on understanding the mechanics of behavioral and environmental signal modulation, how signal modulation varies among species, and how male plumage, signal environment, courtship dances, and their interactions co-evolved.

Through a novel display re-creation method, I developed, where I mapped the orientation-and-positional movements of video-recorded hummingbird courtship dances combined with full-spectrum photography (Simpson & McGraw 2018a), I quantified male color appearance, thus directly measuring how males modulate their signals with behavior and the environment. I discovered that male color appearance is not solely tied to the color of his ornaments (brighter feathers does not mean brighter appearance), due to behavioral modulations of appearance (Simpson & McGraw 2018b, Simpson & McGraw 2019a). These findings demonstrates the need to break with traditional, static-snapshot color measurements and instead study animal coloration as a dynamic trait or behavior, while also illustrating the importance of signal modulation in communication. Among species, I found that color appearance evolved through two divergent evolutionary pathways alongside exaggeration in plumage or behavioral displays (Simpson & McGraw 2019b).

I am continuing to study behavioral modulation of signals in Peruvian hummingbird species, to test if other hummingbird lineages use similar or unique behaviors and environments to modulate their plumage in completely different geographic locations.

My other research themes:
1. Drivers of signal evolution and diversity
2. Evolution of signal production mechanisms

Drivers of Signal Evolution and Diversity

I am studying how the natural history and environment shape the evolution and diversity of animal signals. The bulk of my work in this theme has focused on color evolution in wood warblers (Family: Parulidae). Wood warblers vary considerably in song and color among species, occur throughout a wide variety of habitats (such as pine forests, swamps, and meadows), and differ in multiple ecological traits, such as migratory behavior and species range overlap. I previously found that evolutionary changes in migratory distance were driving the evolution of sexual differences in coloration in this group likely due to losses of female coloration, which is contrary to previous ideas on how sexual color differences were primarily driven by changes in male coloration (Simpson et al. 2015). I also uncovered how both natural and sexual selection act together on different aspects of warbler plumage coloration to shape color diversity in both males and females (Simpson et al. 2020). Currently, I am studying how species range overlap influences signal divergence between species in both song and plumage coloration.

My other research themes:
1. Behavioral and environmental modulation of signals
2. Evolution of signal production mechanisms

I moved to Canada!

I am excited to announce that my wife and I just completed our move to Canada to start our new post-docs this week! I will be working with Stephanie Doucet at the University of Windsor. I will be continuing to study the evolution of coloration in birds, but in collaboration with Stephanie and her husband, Dan Mennill, I will also be studying the co-evolution of color and song. This is particularly exciting for me as I am interested in studying multiple signals and while hummingbirds and many other birds/animals communicate using elaborate dances and ornate color patches, they also signal in other modalities like acoustic or odor signals. Additionally, I will continue to study the mechanisms of color production in hummingbirds using electron microscopy. I will be looking at the surface and internal structures of hummingbird feathers to understand how these structures co-evolved with their feather reflectance, color appearance during displays, and courtship dances.

In the meantime, my recent publication from my dissertation in Ecology Letters picked up some popular press! I was interviewed by a writer from Science for their news section, and they both wrote an article about my paper and created a really neat video! Be sure to check them out!

Concluding my Peru trip

With everything that has been going on (defense, moving, etc.), I realize that I have fallen way behind with my blogging! So here is the final update from my Peru field trip, I hope you enjoy!

Some of the snow-capped volcanoes around Arequipa

For the last leg of my Peru trip, I journeyed to Southern Peru, specifically to the area around Arequipa, which was a Spanish colonial city nested in a valley around several volcanoes. Here I had pretty good success working with two of my target hummingbird species – Peruvian sheartail (video of display, side video) and oasis hummingbird (video of display, side video).

A male oasis hummingbird (Thaumastura vesper; formerly Rhodopis vesper)

A Peruvian sheartail male (Thaumastura cora)

I stayed at a wonderful hotel outside of the city, which was great because I could walk to one of my field sites that was just outside of town. At this field site, along many farm plots, wound a creek along some desert hills. It was among these hills and the creek bed where I found both species holding territories and displaying.


A Peruvian sheartail perching in his territory

My other field site was about 2 hours away from town, along another riverbed, but in a much more desert-based habitat, as you can see from these pictures.


At this field site, I was looking for the elusive purple-collared woodstar, and while I never was able to work with them, I found some additional oasis hummingbirds. The best part about this field site, is that I caught an oasis hummingbird male with my bare hand!! It was hanging out near the female in her cage, as in the blow photos, and I just quickly pinned it against the cage and was able to capture it. (it was not hurt in any way!) So that was an awesome moment for me in my research.


Overall, I loved the area around Arequipa. It was a beautiful place, surrounded by these snow-capped volcanoes, and the people were very friendly. I had a great time working with my wonderful field assistant, Carla Llerena Quiroz, and visiting the university/museum of my collaborator, Mauricio Ugarte at El Museo de Historia Natural de la Universidad Nacional San Augustin, where I gave a seminar for them. All in all, this leg of my trip was very successful, and I then returned to the US to begin analyzing those data I collected and wrapping up my dissertation. More on all that in the future, so for now, here are a few additional photos from highlights of my Arequipa trip:

A Peruvian sheartail nest

The awkward way we have to drive with our mist-net poles to the field (we drove like this for over an hour).

The famous giant hummingbird (Patagona gigas), which can weigh up to 25 grams!

The super barren desert around Arequipa, which makes the deserts around Phoenix look like lush tropical rainforests in comparison.



Dissertation defense time!

Well its finally time! I am defending my Ph.D. this Friday at 2:00 PM (Arizona time). All are welcome to attend my talk, which will be about 1 hour, and is on Arizona State University’s Tempe campus in Life Sciences E-wing 244 (LSE 244).

My talk will cover my four dissertation chapters on the evolution of hummingbird coloration and courtship displays. I will probably write a summary blog of my dissertation later this summer, but if you want to see the presentation in person, please stop by!

Wish me luck!