My research has focused on the ecology, behavior, conservation and evolution of birds and on two main general themes: understanding how ecology influences the evolution of complex behaviors and understanding the consequences of environmental alteration on animal communities and ecological processes. To accomplish this, I have used a combination of behavioral observations, field experiments, molecular analyses, and Geographical Information Systems.
Sexual selection in lekking manakins. Lekking species, in which males congregate in communal display areas (leks) and females carry alone all aspects of parental care, have long served as models for sexual selection studies. Yet, many aspects of the evolution of this unusual mating system remain poorly understood. For my Ph.D. research, I focused on the Blue-crowned manakin (Lepidothrix coronata) to investigate costs and benefits of lekking for males and females, to test hypotheses concerning the evolution of lekking, and to understand how leks form and change over time. In collaboration with Drs. Bette Loiselle, John Blake and Patricia Parker, among others, I conducted comparative studies focused on six sympatric manakin species from Eastern Ecuador to understand how ecological differences among species may affect male reproductive skew and the potential for sexual selection.
Effects of habitat changes on forest bird communities. Tropical forests are among the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth, and also some of the most endangered. Forests can be modified in a number of ways (e.g., through habitat loss, fragmentation, and/or structural alteration), with different expected biological consequences. Yet, few studies have attempted to disentangle the independent and synergistic effects of different impacts on community composition and ecological processes. In collaboration with Dr. Jordan Karubian, I addressed this question by focusing on the mega-diverse Chocó forests of Western Ecuador. This research has direct implications for the conservation of this important biodiversity hotspot and incorporated engagement, professional training and environmental education for local communities.
Effects of environmental contaminants on singing behavior of Northern Mockingbirds. Mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) are well renowned by their ability to learn and reproduce songs of other species and even non-animal sounds such as car alarms. There is evidence that repertoire complexity affects reproductive success of males and is correlated with physiological and developmental health of birds. As a post-doctoral fellow at the lab of Dr. Elizabeth Derryberry, I investigated if lead contamination, putatively by impairing cognitive and mechanical abilities, affected singing performance in mockingbirds in the New Orleans area. As in many large cities around the world, lead in the environment is a serious problem in New Orleans, and this research attempted to bridge relevant themes in animal behavior and public health.