People: Current Lab Members

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Mike Webster (lab jefe)

Mike has studied sexual selection and the mating behavior of wild birds in North America, the New World tropics, and Australia. He is particularly fascinated by “cryptic” reproductive behaviors such as extra-pair copulations and brood parasitism, and also by the evolutionary causes and consequences of elaborate sexual signals. One key area of research focuses on the evolution of plumage and song signals, and in particular the factors underlying variation in signals within and across populations. A second major focus is the effects of ecological factors on reproductive strategies, including the “carry over” effects of conditions during the non-breeding season, and how breeding behavior might be affected by climate change. These projects are conducted on Australian fairy-wrens and North American warblers, though some of Mike’s students also work on other systems (below). As Director of the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Mike is also dedicated to outreach that helps others experience and appreciate animal behavior and the evolutionary processes that have shaped our natural world.

You can contact Mike.

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Zena Castell (PhD Student)

Zena first developed a fascination for vocal signaling in Melospiza sparrows while completing her honors thesis in Dr. Jeff Podos's Lab at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst as an undergraduate. Investigating factors that maintain signal honesty in Song Sparrows, she found that below a certain threshold, temperature may act as a constraint on song rate. A grant from the Natural History Collections at UMass Amherst allowed her to continue working in the Podos Lab over the summer to examine the role of learning in the development of female preference for conspecific songs in Swamp Sparrows. Now a Weblab grad student, Zena continues to work on the interplay between natural and sexual selection on the evolution of complex signaling in sparrows.   

 





Jay Falk (PhD student)

Jay is fascinated by all things social and sexual selection, but is focusing on the function and evolution of color polymorphisms in female hummingbirds for his dissertation. Before coming to Cornell, Jay went to the University of Texas in Austin as an undergrad where he worked on reproductive isolation in flour beetles, and the influence of bat communities on the mating calls of katydids

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Ryan Germain (Postdoc)

Ryan is a NSERC postdoctoral fellow investigating the sources of variation in individual life-histories (mating behavior, reproductive success, lifespan). To address these questions, he primarily uses long-term field studies of wild populations to separate the effects of habitat variation from genetic and phenotypic variation on individual life-history. At Cornell, his work centers on how male territory quality can affect the opportunity for sexual selection in migratory warblers. To learn more, please visit Ryan’s website.

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Young Ha Suh

I am a third-year PhD candidate co-advised by John W. Fitzpatrick and Mike Webster. I am interested in why behavioral variation exists among individuals and how environmental change plays a role in its maintenance. My current research focuses on the variation of dispersal behavior in the Florida Scrub-Jay, a species that inhabits a dynamic habitat altered by frequent fires. Using field observations and modeling approaches, I am looking at the causes and consequences of different dispersal decisions in relation to the surrounding social and physical environment. 

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Sara Keen (PhD)

Sara studies social learning and vocal communication and incorporates signal processing and machine learning techniques in the analysis of acoustic signals. Currently she works with wild songbirds in Oxford, UK. Read more about her work here.

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Rusty Ligon (Postdoc)
Rusty is interested in the myriad ways that animals communicate with another. Primarily, he is interested in the visual signals that animals use to mediate social interactions and he studies these signals at multiple levels of analysis. At Cornell, Rusty is investigating the evolutionary interplay between complex ornamentation (e.g. color, morphology) and elaborate display behavior in the birds of paradise. More about Rusty's research at his website.



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Karan Odom (Postdoc)

Karan is interested in how animals evolved the diversity of elaborate traits that we see in the natural world. Karan is especially interested in complex bird song and the selection pressures responsible for elaborate song in female and male songbirds. To study this, Karan uses phylogenetic comparative methods and recordings available in biological collections to investigate how complex bird song has changed in females and males over evolutionary time. Karan also developed a citizen science project – the Female Bird Song Project – to increase awareness and documentation of female bird songs for sound archives. Visit www.femalebirdsong.org to learn more.

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Mario Pesendorfer

Mario Pesendorfer studies the role of corvids (crows, jays, magpies, and nutcrackers) as seed dispersers, the reproductive ecology of oaks, and how to restore forest habitats using ecosystem services. His core research is conducted at Archbold Biological Station (Venus, FL), the Hastings Natural History Reservation (Carmel Valley, CA), and California's Channel Islands National Park. For more, check out www.mariopesendorfer.com



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Marcelo Araya Salas (Postdoc)

Marcelo's research focuses on using Neotropical study systems and novel analytical methods to evaluate ideas in behavioral and evolutionary biology. His first paper examined the harmonic content in Nightingale Wren songs, which provided no support to a long-standing belief in the musicality of bird song. He recently co-authored two studies on hummingbird behavior, derived from his Ph.D. research, showing for the first time that 1) their bills have adapted to serve as weapons in agonistic encounters and 2) hummingbirds exhibit open-ended vocal learning. He also co-authored a recent study suggesting that vocal learning does not seem to accelerate the evolution of acoustic signals in Neotropical parrots. As a postdoc here at Cornell, he is evaluating whether cultural transmission can promote signal divergence and clade diversification over evolutionary time. For more information, please visit his website.


 

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Laurel Symes

Laurel conducts research on the community ecology of communication: the way that interactions within and between species affect signal production and reception. To understand communication systems and species interactions, she studies a variety of taxa including crickets, katydids, frogs, bats and birds. Her work incorporates behavioral experiments, neuro- and metabolic physiology, audio analysis, and machine learning approaches. At Cornell, she works both with the Webster Lab and with the Bioacoustics Research Program. Please visit her website to learn more about her work.




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Derrick Thrasher (PhD Candidate)

Derrick earned his bachelor’s degree in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation from the University of Florida. His undergraduate research in Katie Sieving's lab focused on territorial interactions and habitat use of the eastern painted bunting in coastal areas of northeastern Florida. After working on projects studying avian life history evolution in the southwestern US and Peru, Derrick is now pursuing a Ph.D. in the Webster lab. His interests relate broadly to sociality and the evolution of social signals in birds. Currently, Derrick is investigating the role of social selection on the evolution of female plumage ornaments and reproductive strategies in the variegated fairy-wren.

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Joe Welklin (PhD Candidate)

Joe studied the different functions of dark-eyed junco song in Ellen Ketterson's lab at Indiana University for his bachelor's degree, concluding with a thesis on how short-range song may act as a pre-zygotic isolating mechanism in this species. Since then he's begun pursuing a PhD in the Webster lab and has developed an interest in the myriad of factors that enforce honesty in signals and how these influence an individual's behavior. Currently he is designing a project to determine the relative effects physiological and social costs have on plumage signals in red-backed fairy-wrens.




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Undergraduates:We are proud – and fortunate! – to have several outstanding Cornell undergraduates working on projects in our lab. Niki Love is examining interspecific communication in alarm calls of titmice and blue jays. Annie Lee is investigating the evolution of coloration in Birds-of-Paradise. Sofia Salcedo is investigating the display behavior of satin bowerbirds. Jess Taylor and Samantha Hagler are studying red-backed fairywrens through our NSF-funded IRES program. For a glimpse of past IRES students working in the field, check out this movie produced by former undergraduate, Shailee Shah