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!

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!

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!

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

While communicating animals can use multiple signals simultaneously and these signals can interact during use. 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. The color-behavior-environment interactions shape the appearance of a male’s colorful plumage to the female, a unique signal property created by the signal interactions. Using six North American hummingbird species as my study system, my research in this theme focuses on understanding the mechanics of these signal interactions, how signal interactions vary among species, and how signal interactions co-evolved with the interacting signals themselves.

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, I quantified male color appearance, thus directly measuring properties of signal interactions. I discovered that male color appearance is not solely tied to the color of his ornaments (i.e. brighter feathers does not mean brighter appearance), due to behavioral alterations of appearance (Simpson & McGraw 2018), which demonstrates the need to break with traditional, static-snapshot color measurements and instead study animal coloration as a dynamic trait or behavior. Among species, I found that color appearance evolved through two divergent evolutionary pathways alongside exaggeration in plumage or behavioral displays (Simpson & McGraw 2019).

I am continuing my work on signal interactions by evaluating signal interactions in spiders, peafowl, and Peruvian hummingbird species.

My other research themes:
1. Sensory and evolutionary ecology of animal signals and their diversity
2. Evolution of signal production mechanisms

I am studying how an animal’s ecology and signaling environment shape the evolution and diversity of signals. The bulk of my work in this theme has focused on color evolution in Paruild warblers. Warblers vary considerably in color among species, occur throughout a wide variety of habitats, ranging from pine forests to swamps to meadows, and differ in several ecological traits, such as migratory behavior and species overlap. I previously found that evolutionary changes in migratory distance were driving losses of female coloration in this group, contrary to previous theory on how sexual color differences were primarily driven by changes in male coloration (Simpson et al. 2015). I am currently studying how natural and sexual selection together drive color diversity by each acting on different aspects of color and continuing to explore other factors driving warbler color evolution.

Additionally, in collaboration with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, I studied a neotropical songbird, the red-throated ant-tanager (Habia fuscicauda) in Panama and found spatial variation in ambient light and noise predicted variation in male color and song (Simpson & McGraw 2018).

My other research themes:
1. Mechanisms and evolution of signal interactions
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!

http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/07/trick-snagging-hummingbird-chick-good-lighting

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!

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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).

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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A Peruvian sheartail nest

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

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

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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!

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Well, I’m back from Peru and busily trying to wrap up my dissertation. While I will definitely write a final Peru blog post in the near future, I also recently wrote a guest blog post for Oxford University Press blog about my first dissertation chapter titled, “How do male hummingbird dance moves alter their appearance?” published in Behavioral Ecology. This chapter is titled “Two ways to display: male hummingbirds show different color-display tactics based on sun orientation,” and tests how broad-tailed hummingbirds orient towards the sun as they dance and how their sun orientation alters what they look like. I hope you enjoy the post and paper, and please let me know if you have any questions about the study!

Also check out this .gif they made for me from one of my YouTube videos.

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