Spotlight

Kirtland's Warbler
Bird poop shows that when birds migrate, their gut bacteria change
Heather Skeen, PhD candidate, Committee on Evolutionary Biology (CEB) & lead author
In a new study in the journal Molecular Ecology, researchers used tiny radio trackers to follow the movements of birds that migrated between The Bahamas and Michigan, and they found that the same individual birds’ gut bacteria were different in the two locations. But to figure that out, they had to examine a lot of bird poop. Heather Skeen, a PhD candidate at UChicago's Committee on Evolutionary Biology, is the lead author of the study, with the Field Museum’s John Bates and Shannon Hackett, Nathan Cooper at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, and Peter Marra at Georgetown University. Skeen's project built on Nathan Cooper's long-standing work researching the Kirtland’s Warbler in its winter home in The Bahamas and its breeding ground in northern Michigan. She and her colleagues selected the Kirtland’s Warbler "because there are very, very few species of birds where you would have been able to track individual birds from their non-breeding grounds and then capture them on their breeding grounds,” says Skeen. Kirtland’s Warbler is one of the rarest birds in the world, nearly going extinct in the 20th century; their populations have stabilized as a result of intensive conservation efforts. This rarity, combined with the birds' extreme pickiness in their breeding grounds, made them ideal subjects for Skeen's study. Skeen and her colleagues began their fieldwork in The Bahamas, where they lured Kirtland’s Warblers with recorded bird calls and fitted them with tiny radio tracking devices. After attaching the trackers, the researchers put the birds inside of wax paper bags for a few minutes, so they could take care of "business." The warblers were then released, leaving Skeen to go into the bags and collect fecal samples. The second stage of the research took place at the other end of the migration in Michigan. There, Skeen and her team would wait for pings from the area’s radio towers, and then fan out with handheld radio antenna to track the warblers they’d tagged in The Bahamas. The birds were recaptured to gather a second round of poop. Initially basing her hypotheses on findings from mammals, whose microbiome is tied to their identity, Skeen assumed the warbler’s microbiome would remain consistent in its breeding and winter grounds. Instead, her analyses revealed the opposite: the bird’s gut bacteria was different in the two locations, influenced more by environment and diet than species identity. These results suggest the warbler’s digestive system has adapted to varying conditions in terms of weather and available food sources.  “One of the most important parts about this study is that we were able to recapture birds at different portions of the annual cycle in different locations, and we have this one-to-one comparison of the same population and the same individuals and how their microbiomes changed,” says Skeen. “If we’d tested different individual birds, we wouldn’t have been able to say for sure if the changes we saw were due to location or if they were just differences between populations. Since we were looking at the exact same birds, these results are much more supported.” Another key realization here is that the climate crisis might make gut microbiomes especially important as animals attempt to survive in changing environments. “An animal’s gut microbiome is an additional level of molecular diversity, and as global climate change alters ecosystems, the gut microbiome might be one of the avenues in which animals can adapt to the changing environment,” says Skeen. “The gut microbiome has its own unique ecosystem, and it’s ripe for discoveries.”    
Taylor Hains with a friend
Taylor Hains talks about what avian genomics means for bird owners
CEB graduate student & founder of Terra Wildlife Genomics
Taylor Hains, a 2nd-year Evolutionary Biology graduate student, will be presenting a live podcast on Friday, August 20, at 6:00 pm (CDT), addressing "Avian Genomics: What Is It and What Does it Mean for Bird Owners." Taylor will talk about what the study of genomics involves, how genomics are used to manage a variety of species, and why bird owners should be interested in future applications of genomics. Watch live on the Leather Elves Facebook page. In addition to pursuing a PhD in evolutionary biology at UChicago, Taylor is the founder of Terra Wildlife Genomics, a non-profit organization focused on incorporating genomics into the population management of threatened and endangered species. His organization seeks to provide new insight into current management practices through population genomics, and to provide recommendations to create genetically healthy and sustainable populations, for both conservation purposes and to support private breeders/ranchers. To learn more, visit Terra Wildlife Genomics' Facebook page. To listen to Taylor's presentation, click here.  
Nadya holding a male black-footed ferret recovering from anesthesia
Nadya Ali's research promotes the recovery of endangered species
Her work could impact recovery efforts for endangered mammals worldwide
Spotlight written by Jordan Greer Nadya Ali is a 3rd year PhD candidate in the Committee on Evolutionary Biology. Her research aims to promote the continued recovery of endangered species. After graduating from Barnard College (2013), she spent much of her time focused on social justice—this passion culminated in her documentary film, “Breaking Silence.” At the University of Chicago, she brings that same drive to her research as she investigates strategies to combat infertility in her model species, the critically endangered black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes). Although she works on a single species, the results of her research could impact recovery efforts for endangered mammals across the globe. With the support of her advisor, Dr. Rachel Santymire, Nadya works to develop approaches to overcome the high levels of male black-footed ferret infertility that have emerged within captive populations. She investigates how factors of captivity, such as diet, may lead to ferret infertility through sperm DNA damage. Additionally, Nadya is developing an assay to screen for the levels of DNA damage present in ferret sperm—the results of which could help scientists and managers determine which males would have the best chance of breeding successfully. Then, she is applying molecular techniques to investigate how gene expression differs between fertile vs. infertile individuals. Taken together, Nadya’s research will contribute to captive M. nigripes management efforts, so that more individuals can be released back into the wild.   Nadya's research is made possible with support from the Hinds Fund, the University of Chicago Diversity and Inclusion Grant, and the Association of Zoo’s and Aquarium’s Saving Species from Extinction (SAFE) Grant. With their support, she has been able to gather data from various captive breeding sites, including the Colorado National Ferret Conservation Center and Louisville Zoological Gardens. These funds also allow her to spend time collecting samples from M. nigrepes in the wild. However, in Nadya's view, it’s the people she’s met through the University of Chicago that has made the greatest impact: “CEB attracts a diverse group of people with different expertise and backgrounds, and—in a non-traditional way—it’s trained me to be a more critical thinker and scientist.” Once completed with her dissertation work, Nadya plans to use her newfound skills and connections to continue her fight for social good, both for animal and humankind.    
Ryan Fuller uses molecular techniques to understand speciation in genus Rhododendron
A 4th-year CEB student, Ryan Fuller's research combines botany, genetics, and evolution
Spotlight written by Jordan Greer Ryan Fuller is a 4th year PhD candidate in the Committee on Evolutionary Biology whose work combines aspects of botany, genetics, and evolution. He received a Master’s of Science from the University of Northern Colorado (2015) where he was introduced to plant research and quickly fell in love with applied population genetics. Now at the University of Chicago, he aims to use molecular techniques to better understand evolution and speciation within the plant genus Rhododendron, a charismatic and prominent element of the North Temperate flora. Specifically, his research focuses on the alpine subsection of Rhododendron known as Lapponica. By collecting leaf tissue samples from natural Lapponica populations and sourcing material from living and museum collections, he hopes to combine genetic data with physical traits to answer questions about evolutionary history and species identification. With support from his CEB advisors Drs. Richard Ree and Andrew Hipp and multiple collaborators around the world, Ryan has developed a phylogeny of Lapponica using DNA sequence data. Early results suggest that some of the supposed “species” are actually the products of hybridization events or phenotypic plasticity. What’s more is that several samples display higher rates of genome duplication (polyploidy) than previously expected. These findings beg new questions: (1) How does polyploidy impact diversification within Lapponica and other closely related groups and (2) can its origins be traced? These problems are the focal points of Ryan’s dissertation work and may hold answers that dramatically reshape our understanding of evolution within Rhododendron. With funding from the Committee on Evolutionary Biology and a Mini-ARTS award from the Society of Systematic Biologists, he has traveled abroad to collect samples and learn from taxonomic experts. Locations include the Hengduan Mountains in China—a location brimming with over 500 species of Rhododendron, and the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, Scotland--home to one of the largest collections of both living and preserved Rhododendron in the world. As a CEB student, Ryan believes his access to institutions such as the Field Museum and the Morton Arboretum have been instrumental to his professional development. In the future, he hopes to bring his University of Chicago training to his own lab where he can effectively mentor and inspire graduate and undergraduate students.  
Mike Coates, CEB chair
CEB50: Committee on Evolutionary Biology celebrates 50 years!
A unique gathering at the Field Museum
The Committee on Evolutionary Biology celebrated 50 years of groundbreaking, interdisciplinary research and achievements in evolutionary biology, at a recent gathering of current students, faculty, and distinguished alums! The special 2-day program began on Thurs evening, Nov. 21, in Hinds Laboratory, with a featured Evolutionary Morphology seminar presented by Michael Foote, UChicago professor of Geophysical Sciences, on "Diversity-Dependent Diversification in the History of Life. The 50th anniversary celebration continued on Friday, Nov. 22, at The Field Museum, with a select group of alumni -- including Brandon Kilbourne, Anjali Goswami, Karen Sears, Nate Smith, Alex Dehgan, Sharon Swartz, Ana Carnaval, Lucinda Lawson, and Michael LaBarbera -- presenting seminars throughout the day on a wide range of topics, followed by a formal reception. This very special recognition of the Committee on Evolutionary Biology's first 50 years was a resounding success!