Interested in the evolution of animal sexual signals? The ecological and evolutionary underpinnings of reproductive strategies? The micro- and macroevolutionary consequences of sexual selection? We are looking for enthusiastic and creative students and postdocs to join the Webster Lab (a.k.a. “Weblab”) to pursue these and other exciting questions in behavioral and evolutionary ecology. Specific openings in the lab vary and depend on a number of factors. If you are interested in joining the lab to become a Websterfarian, follow specific links below or contact Mike.

Why the Webster Lab? The mission of the Webster lab is to pursue a better understanding of our natural world, educate others about the wonders and importance of nature, and produce professionals who excel at doing both. As indicated by this mission statement, we place equal emphasis on doing the research that we love, teaching others through formal classes and public outreach, and training of students in the lab to become true professionals (see our Lab Vision). In addition, students and postdocs in our lab have opportunities to interact and collaborate with excellent colleagues through our connections to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, as well as good ties to other Cornell Departments such as Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Natural Resources. Oh, and we try to have a good time while we’re doing it all!

Opportunities for Graduate Students. Graduate students in the Weblab are enrolled in the Neurobiology and Behavior Graduate Studies Program, and spend time on the main campus as well as at the Lab of Ornithology. Students conduct research on a diversity of topics falling within the broad outlines described above. Although most student projects fall within the major research themes of the lab (see Research page) and are focused on birds, we are question-oriented and past student projects have included studies of brood parasitism in ducks, alternative reproductive strategies in sunfish, and even conservation genetics of wild sheep and plants.

Opportunities for Undergraduates. We welcome motivated undergraduates interested in obtaining research experience. New students joining the lab are often mentored by a graduate student or postdoc to work on a project. Students often earn course credit for their work. Students who have experience in the lab and show exceptional promise can conduct their own independent research projects. These projects are developed in consultation with the mentor and Mike and often fulfill the requirements of a senior honor’s thesis. Students have also published their work!


Current Projects Seeking Undergraduates

Anti-predator information transfer from titmice to blue jays. What information is decoded among species—how much do other species understand each other? When a titmouse gives an alarm call in response to a predator, does a blue jay understand what kind of threat the predator is to blue jays and respond accordingly? Students will have the opportunity to conduct local field experiments to wild birds and gain skills in sound analysis techniques. Students will learn how to collect, archive, and share media for their research, integrate field and lab methods, and develop computational skills for modern, integrative biology research. This project is best suited for independent, motivated students who want to pursue a senior honor thesis and publish this research. If interested, contact Mike (msw244@cornell.edu) explaining your interest in the project and your undergraduate and career goals.


The evolution of courtship behaviors and sounds in the birds-of-paradise. How are behaviors and sound coordinated during courtship dances? Are there patterns of coordination between types of behaviors and sounds among the species? What are the selection pressures acting on courtship displays? Students will have the opportunity to gain skills in behavior and sound data collection and data analysis techniques using the Macaulay Library collection of sound and video recordings of birds-of-paradise. Students will learn how to utilize media in their research and develop computational skills for modern, integrative biology research. If interested, contact Mike (msw244@cornell.edu).


Evolution of Male-like Female Hummingbirds

In most species of hummingbird males are much more colorful than females. In some species, however, only some of the females are less ornamented, while others are identical to males in coloration. This pattern is rare among animals and is difficult to explain using typical hypotheses for animal ornamentation. We use a variety of methods including photo analysis, behavioral, and physiology studies to identify the selective underpinnings behind the male-like female phenomena. Graduate student, Jay Falk, is looking for an assistant to aid in photo analysis to measure degree of ornamentation in female hummingbirds. If interested, send an email to Jay (j.jinsing@gmail.com).

Satin Bowerbird

Liz Bergen is a graduate student seeking assistants to analyze video and audio recordings of satin bowerbirds as volunteers or for credit. The satin bowerbird is an Australian songbird with elaborate, sexually selected displays in which a male builds a stick bower, decorates it with colorful objects, and dances to court visiting females. Males compete with each other over bower displays by stealing decorations, destroying bowers, and fighting with other males for ownership. Liz studies how individual bower owners use social information, gained through communication with male and female visitors, to improve their success in mate attraction and male-male competition. Assistants analyze video and audio recordings of social interactions at bowers that have been collected in Australia from September to December by field crew. Once assistants have become familiar with satin bowerbird behaviors through video coding Liz encourages them to develop an independent research project for credit. If interested, send an email to Liz (elb254@cornell.edu).

Hybridization in Birds

Would you mate with another species? Why do birds sometimes do that? Hybridization? More like WHYbridization!

Drs. Rusty Ligon and Gavin Leighton are searching for an enthusiastic undergraduate researcher to help collect data and compile a database on hybridization in birds. The ultimate goal is to test how sociality and breeding systems influence macroevolutionary patterns of hybridization across birds. The work would entail extracting data from primary and secondary sources of information on birds, and learning about macroevolutionary methods. They anticipate that the research would require work for a semester, but could be extended into similar and novel projects. If interested, please contact Gavin Leighton (gml86@cornell.edu) explaining your interest in the project.