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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While doing my fieldwork in Peru, I took a short trip to Cusco to visit Machu Picchu, and the other surrounding Inca ruins/temples, with my sister who visited me from Connecticut! For those who do not know, Machu Picchu is probably the largest tourist attraction in South America, and for good reason – it was spectacular. The Incas were one of the many native peoples that lived in Peru, and they formed a giant empire in the Andes Mountains between 1438 and 1572. The current city of Cusco, was at the heart of this empire, and a very important site for the Incas, spiritually and logistically.

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The city of Cusco.

The Incas also built many temples and complexes near Cusco, with the most famous being Machu Picchu, which was never discovered by the Spanish Conquistadors. While the Inca empire was vast and had achieved many technological innovations, especially with agriculture, architecture, and astronomy, the Spanish Conquistadors unfortunately brutally conquered the Incas and many of their discoveries have been lost. Luckily, modern science has been a great help in uncovering the secrets of Machu Picchu and other Inca sites.

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Part of the Sacred Valley.

During our travels around Cusco, we first visited a place called the Sacred Valley – it is the valley between Cusco and Machu Picchu. Along this valley are many interesting ruins, several churches that the Spanish built on top of Inca temples, and groups of people who still carry out many of the Inca traditions, and I was able to visit many of these places. We first visited the town of Chinchero where we saw one of the Spanish churches that was built on top of an Inca temple.

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The church at Chinchero, which was built upon the foundations of the Inca tempe.

We were also able to watch how people weave alpaca fur together and use many different natural ingredients to dye woven materials into many different colors.

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Women from Chinchero using natural ingredients to dye alpaca fur for weaving.

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All the different natural ingredients used for dying.

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The result of the dyes.

Then, we visited the town of Pisac and went to the Inca complex found there. At this complex, we learned how the Incas built their temples with specific designs that incorporated the movement of the sun and the moon. The Incas were brilliant astronomers and used their knowledge of the sun, moon, and stars to understand seasonal and weather patterns to help their agriculture. Here are a few pictures of the complex at Pisac:

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The many terraces at Pisac, used for farming.

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One of the habitable parts of the Pisac complex.

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The lower part of the Pisac complex.

 

After Pisac, we visited to the town of Ollantaytambo, at which is located the famous Temple of the Sun. This temple is particularly interesting because of the amazing architecture and engineering abilities of the Incas. If you look at these pictures, you can see how they managed to fit different giant stones together, without mortar, almost perfectly.

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The terraces leading up to the Temple of the Sun.

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The ruins of the Temple of the Sun

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Examples of how the Incas fit different stones together like a puzzle.

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Another example of the architectural advances of the Incas.

From Ollantaytambo we took a train to Aguas Calientes to spend the night, before heading up to Machu Picchu. Our visit to Machu Picchu was awe-inspiring. In the morning it was very cloudy and misty, giving it a mystical feeling, and by mid-day the sun came out, which gave us a great view of the entire complex. Here were learned about the significance of the complex and how it was laid out, with brilliant city planning and lots of terraces for agriculture to feed the people.

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Mist-covered Machu Picchu.

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A more clear view of the Machu Picchu complex.

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A view from inside the main square of the Machu Picchu complex.

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A full view of Machu Picchu.

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A distant view of Machu Picchu, showing the many terraces surrounding the complex.

After our tour of Machu Picchu, we took the train back to Ollantaytambo, and then a car back to Cusco. The next day, we visited various ruins around Cusco, including the famous temple Saqsaywaman. We learned about the specific meanings of all the different ruins, and how the Incas used water channels and natural springs to spread water throughout the Cusco area, similar to how they did in Machu Picchu too.

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An example of the water delivery systems of the Incas.

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The ruins of Saqsaywaman.

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Another view of Saqsaywaman.

Finally, we visited many of the museums in Cusco, which were very informative and a great follow up to our tours of the Inca ruins and Machu Picchu. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take photographs in these museums, so I cannot show much from them.

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A view of Machu Picchu through one of the inner city gates.

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The beautiful mountains and cloud forests surrounding Machu Picchu.

We were fortunate enough to visit these places in the low season, so there were much fewer people, which I would recommend. The high season is between May and October (I believe) and there are huge, huge crowds during that time. Overall, I would highly recommend everyone to visit Cusco, the Sacred Valley, and Machu Picchu. It definitely lives up to the hype, and I thought exceeded it.

Finally, given that this post was mostly an overview of my visit, if you are interested in learning more about a specific place/ruin/topic please let me know!

Back to Peru!

That’s right, I am back in Peru right now studying hummingbirds. I know, it is a bit crazy for me to be gathering data the semester I plan to graduate, but I got a grant to travel to Peru, and I am not about to say no to that!

Anyways, this trip to Peru is much more structured than last time. Last time, I was scouting the country and searching for field sites. Now that I have field sites, I am staying those places for longer periods of time. Right now, I am in Northern Peru three weeks. I am currently staying at the Center for the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society (SBC), in a small town called Batangrande. It is a family run field station that is near the Andes Mountains and in the tropical dry forests unique to this region (called Tumbes). It is also a great location to study two species of hummingbirds: short-tailed woodstar (Myrmia micrura) and purple-collared woodstar (Myrtis fanny).

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A short-tailed woodstar male.

So far, things are going well. I have found territories of multiple males for both species, including over 10 territories for the short-tailed woodstar. Now I am working to trap a female of each species and use her to film the courtship dances of the males.

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A purple-collared woodstar female.

The short-tailed woodstar, which is a species somewhat endemic to the Tumbes region, is a tiny hummingbird with a ridiculously small tail (that is actually what it says in the bird guide book). The males have an iridescent purple gorget (throat patch) and sing a song similar to the Costa’s hummingbirds in the US. They live in the tropical dry forests here, which are a very interesting habitat. It is very hot and sunny here, but the habitat is different than many I have visited in Peru. Here are some pictures of the dry forests:

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Another short-tailed woodstar male.

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The dry forests of Northern Peru(can you find the hummingbird?).

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Another photo of the dry forests of Northern Peru (can you find the hummingbird?).

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A dry riverbed within the dry forests.

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A scarlet-backed woodpecker (Viniliornis callonotus)

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A Peruvian meadowlark (Leistes bellicosa).

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A burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia) that I scared up into the tree accidentally.

 

The purple-collared woodstar, is much more widespread in Peru, but tends to live at higher elevations. For them, we drive up into the Andes until about 6,500 ft (2,000 meters), and work in the montane scrub and agriculture areas there. I like these sites because they are much cooler than the dry forest below, and the mountains are very beautiful. This species has been a bit weird for me, because we have found many, many females, but only a few males. But the males we found will work just fine, and I have already seen them display naturally to females, which is a great sign! The purple-collared woodstar is especially interesting to me because of the color of its gorget. Most of the species in the group of hummingbirds I study (the bee hummingbirds) have purple, pink, or red gorgets, but the purple-collared woodstar has a greenish-blue iridescent gorget. I do not have any great pictures of the males yet, but here is the habitat in which we have found them, and a photo of the male from the side:

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A male purple-collared woodstar, and you can see his blue gorget at the edge.

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Some of the montane scrub where we find the purple-collared woodstar.

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A riverbed, with some water, up in the mountains.

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Another view of the montane scrub.

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A male hepatic tanager (Piranga flava).

That is all I have for now, but I should have videos of courtship displays and photos of males that I have captured soon!