Author: Maria W Pil

I'm a PhD candidate in Ecology, Evolution and Systematics at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, in Dr. Robert Ricklefs Lab. I'm mainly interested in population genetics and biogeography. My dissertation is on pop. genetics of several passerines from the West Indian islands. I'm also passionate about mangroves!

Not all frogs jump alike – the evolution of landing in frogs

Well, at least they don’t land alike – some prefer a nose-dive style! A group of researchers led by Dr. Rick Essner, from the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, have recorded the jumping styles of different frogs in slow-motion and found that some frogs, more specifically the ones belonging to the Leiopelmatidae family, don’t know how to land like most frogs. Interestingly, Leiopelmatidae is the basal-most living frog family, indicating frogs first learned how to jump, and only later in their evolutionary history did they develop a way to land that didn’t involve a head or belly flop. Here is a link to their paper.

The Leiopelmatidae:


The frogs we are accustomed to seeing, and that we used to chase when we were kids, have a typical jump that works like this: first there is a propulsion to get the body off ground, then half-way through, the body and limbs will flex in preparation for landing. This mid-air flexion is what prevents them from a head-first collision.

Screen Shot 2014-11-04 at 6.23.07 PM

All frogs (order Anura) can be divided in two main classifications, the basal-most Leiopelmatidae and all other frogs, Lalagobatrachia (Frost et al, 2006). These two groups diverged around 225 million years ago (Roelans and Bossuyt, 2005). The Leiopelmatidae were particularly interesting for this study because according to Dr. Essner they “retained central and behavioral features that are evolutionary informative”. Dr. Essner and his group already knew that these basal frogs swim differently than others. They do a trot-like rather than a kick-like swim. This trot-like style is characterized by asynchronous movement of the hindlimb, while in the kick-like one, frogs extend and flex both their hindlimbs together, which is what all other frogs do. That suggested to the researches that maybe there were other differences in how these frogs moved. So, they set out to test how they jumped and landed. They analyzed slow-motion video footage from five species, three basal leiopelmatidae, Ascaphus montanus, the Rocky Mountain tailed frog, Leiopelma pakeka and L. hochstetteri; and two lalagobatrachians, Bombina orientalis and Lithobates pipiens.


Amphibian Tree of Life, including caecilians, salamanders and all frogs. Not the first frog family is Leiopelmatidae. From

The Lalagobatrachia frogs they observed all had a similar jumping pattern where the “aerial phase [is] characterized by mid-air body and limb rotation in preparation for landing. […] Limb recovery involves protraction, adduction, and extension of the forelimbs, placing them in position to absorb impact forces”. We can call the lalagobatrachians derived frogs, a reference to their more recent placement in the Anuran phylogeny.  The Leiopelamtidae, however, didn’t come programed to flex their hindlimb mid-air, and therefore, land in a belly-flop, abdomen (and sometimes nose) first, and skid to a stop. Like in this video from their study:

Poor guy, but I don’t blame you if you replay that video a couple of times.

Such a simple maneuver, you would think, to flex you limbs before you have to skid your way through a stop. Maybe the art of jumping and landing had evolved together. Apparently not in frogs. The fact that the most basal lineages can’t perform such maneuver indicates that frogs first evolved how to jump, and the landing skills were only developed much later on, in the ancestrals of the lalagobatrachian frogs. According to the authors: “The switch to lalagobatrachian landing and swimming behavior appears to have involved a simple evolutionary change in the timing of limb muscle motor patterns, shifting the onset of hindlimb flexors to an earlier point in the stride cycle.” There seems to be no difference in the morphology of these frogs that could influence how they land, and what makes a difference is simply the timing of their limbs flexion.

“All else being equal, if A. montanus shifted the onset of recovery so that flexion began at mid-flight it would land on its limbs like other frogs.” – Essner et al.

It is worth mentioning that these basal frogs are tiny, as you can see in the picture below where the for is next to a dime. Their smaller size probably helps in their rough landing. They also have large, shield-shaped cartilages, which could soften the uncontrolled landing.

Ascaphus montanus next to a dime. Photo from

Ascaphus montanus next to a dime. Photo from

By now you could be thinking: how did jumping evolve, and is there any relation of how these frogs differ in how they land to primitive terrestrial fishes, or did jumping evolve independently more than once? Well, we don’t know it, but Dr. Essner and his collaborators are currently investigating how jumping involved in anurans.

A very important point to be taken from their work is that when looking at morphological traits to understand evolutionary history, we tend to ignore behavioral aspects that may involve multiple ways of using the same available structures. This paper proves that to make an engine work, it takes much more than just having the right tools.

For more information, read the article: Essner, Richard L, Daniel J Suffian, Phillip J Bishop, and Stephen M Reilly. 2010. “Landing in Basal Frogs: Evidence of Saltational Patterns in the Evolution of Anuran Locomotion.” Naturwissenschaften 97 (10): 935–39. doi:10.1007/s00114-010-0697-4.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Essner.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Essner.

The role of dispersal in Neotropical avian diversity

In a paper published in Nature last month by Brian T. Smith (American Museum of Natural History) and collaborators argue that the strongest predictors of avian speciation in the Amazon are the amount of time a species lineage has endured in the landscape, and how well a bird can move through that landscape. Their results suggest that the dispersal abilities of the birds and how long their lineage has persisted are important drivers of the high biodiversity in the Amazon.

The authors start the introduction by reminding us that we, scientists, usually link the biodiversity of the Neotropics to two major hypotheses:

1) large-scale landscape changes that generate bio-diversification by population fragmentation followed by isolation, and

2) the formation of a geographically structured landscape matrix on which diversification occurred.

The first, commonly known as vicariance, involves reconfigurations of the landscape, such as the separation of continents by plate tectonics, the uplift of mountains or the formation of large rivers. Since the study involves the avian fauna of the Neotropic region, the large-scale events considered by the authors that could drive biodiversity patterns are the Andean mountain uplift, and the formation of the (very large) Amazonian rivers. This first hypothesis is easier to understand: big mountain or rivers separate populations, which can no longer exchange genes and start differentiating from one another to the point where the different sides will have completely separate evolutionary futures.

The second hypothesis involves organisms’ ability to persist in a structured landscape, which does not necessarily need to change. In this case, allopatric speciation would follow dispersal events, and thus, organism-specific abilities to persist and disperse in the landscape are the principal drivers of speciation. Species with lower dispersal abilities have a lower chance of navigating the landscape and, therefore, tend to accumulate higher genetic differentiation between populations. Higher differentiation, in turn, leads to higher speciation rates.

Figure 1 from Smith et al. 2014. Main landscape barriers and data points in the Neotropics.

Figure 1 from Smith et al. 2014. Main landscape barriers and data points in the Neotropics.

To test these two hypotheses, the authors used 2,500 individuals from 27 widespread bird lineages in the Neotropics. To prevent biases of current taxonomic limitations, authors considered lineages instead of species, i. e., they used monophyletic groups as their definition of a lineage instead of going by current taxonomic nomenclature.

They looked at relatively recently diversified lineages that have their distribution interrupted by the Andes, the Isthmus of Panama and large rivers of the Amazon Basin (the Amazon, Madeira and Negro rivers).

To get around hypothesis 1, the authors tested whether the timing of divergence events were congruent with a single episode of vicariance associated with barrier formation, the Andean uplift. To test hypothesis 2, they compared the different dispersal abilities of lineages to their diversification rate. The idea being that species with lower dispersal abilities accumulate higher genetic differentiation between populations, which, in turn, leads to higher speciation rates. The measures of dispersal are based on “foraging stratum (a measure of dispersal ability linked to the behavior of birds: canopy, high dispersal ability or understory, low dispersal ability) and niche breadth (an indirect measure of dispersal ability based on habitat preference)”.

Birds included in the study. Bird drawings from Smith et al. (2014), originally from del Hoyo et al. (2013) Handbook of the Birds of the World.

Birds included in the study.
Bird drawings from Smith et al. (2014), originally from del Hoyo et al. (2013) Handbook of the Birds of the World.

What their genetic data indicate is that there was not a single divergence event, but rather between 9 and 29, and the timing of these events were not synchronous. Most of the species diversity originated during the Pleistocene, i.e. after the Neogene formation of the landscape matrix. If any of the vicariance events predicted to affect speciation (Andean uplift, Isthmus of Panama, Amazonian rivers formation) had been the source of the diversification, the lineage divergence time would be synchronous, since they were being affected by the same event, considering these are relatively recently divergent species. However, wouldn’t only older divergence events be affected by old vicariance events? How well we can test this is entirely dependent on how well the old phylogenetic node divergences can be estimated. In the paper, the authors acknowledge that they “… do not reject the possibility that the initial geographical isolation of populations at deeper phylogenetic scales was due to vicariance associated with the Andean orogeny or with the emergence of other landscape features”.

“Although highly suggestive of multiple dispersal events, this variation could be explained by a single vicariant event associated with the Andean uplift if the dispersal restrictions imposed by the barrier were heavily dependent on dispersal ability, such as was reported for a taxonomically diverse group of marine organisms isolated by the formation of the Isthmus of Panama. In a similar fashion, the emerging Andes could have first become a barrier for bird lineages with low dispersal abilities, with fragmentation of the distributions of more dispersive lineages occurring later. However, we detected no significant associations between dispersal abilities and divergence times across the Andes and the Isthmus of Panama that would support a model of ecologically mediated vicariance for these barriers.”

What about hypothesis 2? They found that whether a bird lineage inhabits canopy or understory affected the species diversity of that lineage. Since they used foraging strata as a proxy for dispersal ability, this result corroborates with the idea that dispersal-limited lineages (occupying forest understory) are significantly more diverse. The longer a lineage has persisted through time was also a good predictor of species diversity, i.e., older lineage accumulated more differentiation.

“The accumulation of bird species in the Neotropical landscape occurred through a repeated process of geographical isolation, speciation and expansion, with the amount of species diversity within lineages influenced by how long the lineage has persisted in the landscape and its ability to disperse through the landscape matrix.”

All in all, the paper doesn’t refute the vicariance hypothesis, but highlights the role of dispersal. These findings add to the ever-increasing pile of possible explanations for the higher diversity of the tropics and its heated discussion.

Smith, Brian Tilston, John E McCormack, Andrés M Cuervo, Michael J Hickerson, Alexandre Aleixo, Carlos Daniel Cadena, Jorge Pérez-Emán, et al. 2014. “The Drivers of Tropical Speciation.” Nature, September. doi:10.1038/nature13687.

Long field seasons: how to prepare for one

Planning for a long field season next summer? Here is some advice for you. 

Recently, Leticia Soares wrote a post giving advice to students who are planning their first field season. Well, let’s be honest, we all could learn a thing or two (or a gazillion, in my case) about having a successful field season. Together, we decided that this was a topic worth extending, and we invited a few friends from the University of Missouri – St. Louis (UMSL) to give us (and you) some extra advice. In a previous post, Robbie Hart gave us some food for thought while in the field. In this post, you can read Mari Jaramillo‘s tips on how to plan for long periods in the field. She is a PhD candidate who works with avian malaria in the Galapagos islands. That’s right, she works in the Galapagos!! (sigh). Mari is a student in Dr. Patricia Parker’s lab at UMSL, and you can read more about her work at the end of this post.  

Taken at Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz Island.

Taken at Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz Island.

If you are lucky, field work doesn’t only take place during summer. Depending on the nature of your project you might need to stay at the field for extended periods of time, which for a field biologist is not hard at all. The hardest thing is probably leaving; you may be so comfortable you may want to make it your home…

But at some point you ought to know when you have collected enough data. No need to start crying and pouting though, the preliminary analysis of these data will point you in the right direction in future field seasons needed to complete your project.

Planning for extended field seasons is not that different from shorter ones, there’s just a lot more of it! Start thinking way ahead of time about the things that may take a while to get and be proactive about it. Lists are crucial! Ask yourself what things are indispensable for your research, for your assistants and for yourself and write these things down on a field or personal notebook. Also, you and your advisor will be glad if you check the list, item by item, with them or with your teammates that have been to the field site before. You could also send a list of personal items to your assistants and colleagues so they too are prepared for the field conditions and make sure they know about things that they are going to live without, like fresh water or electricity. Now, it doesn’t matter where and for how long you are going if all items in your list are checked off, you are good to go! And if you didn’t include it in your list, after all the scrutiny…


…the truth is you will likely be fine without it.


Field conditions and protocols are different from place to place; make sure you get acquainted with the rules and regulations of the different parks or reserves that you will be working at. Embrace the rules! You may find some of these rules are a pain in the %#$, but there is usually a pretty good reason behind them. Most of my field experience comes from work in the Galapagos Islands. These islands are a world icon and for that reason the park rules are more strict and extensive than anywhere else I have ever been. But I wouldn’t worry; there is a whole lot to enjoy as a scientist in these islands that no one else ever gets to experience!

The stars of the Pacific sky. Credit: Jeisson Zamudio.

The stars of the Pacific sky. Credit: Jeisson Zamudio.

If your work involves being away and isolated for long periods of time, you need to think survival!

Cover yours and everyone else’s basic needs and you will have a happy team! This means: food and water, a well-equipped first aid kit, a comfortable and warm place to sleep, a stove, gas or fuel and cooking equipment, duct tape (YES! Duct tape is a must!), rope, and never forget the matches!! I usually take a bunch of lighters and carry them in Ziploc bags in different places. Trust me, you do not want your field team to be eating cold food for two and a half months! This leads me to something I forgot to mention (and my advisor reminded me of), notice I said a ‘bunch of lighters’, not just one? Always take a spare, especially for items that are important for your work!! There are certain places in the Galapagos where you can head to do field work and find yourself in real isolation; it may take hours (and hundreds of dollars) for boats to get there, if an important piece of equipment brakes you’ll be glad to have a spare one!

Also, make your own plan of what to do in case something unusual happens or in case of an emergency and make sure everyone knows that plan. When the basics are covered, give yourself and your team a place to talk about the research each day. I usually break the group into two-people teams that go out and work all day to come back to camp before sunset. We may or may not have a cooking schedule (I’ve recently learned big groups alaways need schedules), but we usually eat dinner together, talk about how the day went and plan for the next day.

Some field experiences may be overwhelming, especially if it is the first time in a new place or leading a big group of people. You’re usually very busy and constantly planning for the next step… but I guess my best word of advice would be to stop and look around. I mean, really look around. You may be working with a single species but give yourself time to observe its surroundings, its habitat and its interactions with other organisms. Field work is a whole learning experience on its own, take advantage of it. And learn from others too, listen to other people’s ideas and suggestions; some people may surprise you with their creativity.


Lastly, know that things never go exactly as planned. When this happens, IMPROVISE!

Even if that means adding sea water to the rice because you forgot to bring the salt, holding your arm up next to the roof drain at 3am to collect rain water for cooking because they told you there would be water up in the hut and there isn’t, or brushing your teeth with noodle water. Aah! All the good things about field work!



About Mari Jaramillo: I am an Ecuadorian biologist and have been doing field work in the Galapagos since 2008. I began as a field assistant in different projects with PhD students from Australia and Germany. I eventually ended up working with Dr. Sharon Deem, DVM, and Dr. Patricia Parker in a project under the Wildcare Center for Avian Health in the Galapagos Islands of the Saint Louis Zoo. Then I was awarded one of the scholarships for two Ecuadorian students established by Dr. Parker, Dr. Hernán Vargas and The Peregrine Fund to complete a master’s degree working with the Galapagos hawk. My master’s project (at UMSL) studied the impacts of ungulate (mainly goat) eradication on the diet of the Galapagos hawk on Santiago Island. This project required me to lead big groups of people to an uninhabited island for long periods of time (up to 2 1/2 mo) and very hard work. For my PhD I switched back to work with avian diseases. I’d like to break down the disease dynamics of avian malaria in this somewhat isolated archipelago to understand which are the main players in transmission and what is its effect on the endemic avifauna. However, I return to Santiago often to lead field seasons for the long term monitoring of the hawk population run by Dr. Parker in collaboration with Dr. Vargas and others (GNP, CDF).

Field work’s yin and yang, lessons from China

Following up our “Field preparation” series, Robbie Hart from the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis gives us some extra advice on how to prepare for the unforeseen during your field time. Thanks, Robbie, for this great post!

Robbie Hart is a 7th-year Ph.D. candidate at UMSL. He’s spent about half of his time since coming to St. Louis away at his field site in Himalayan China, monitoring the effects of climate change on Rhododendron flowering time along a gradient 2600-4100 m above sea level. He’s now writing up his dissertation and working at the Missouri Botanical Garden, where he continues to focus on climate change impacts on high-elevation Himalayan plants. There’s more about his work, and some pictures of his field sites at


Planning is a feedback loop.

Having a set packing list is important when you’re traveling out of the range of Amazon 2-day shipping. Even more vital is a set methodology when you’re trying to collect data while exhilarated, exhausted, exposed to the elements, or all of the above. However, recognize that planning ahead, while essential, is uninformed by the potent realities of how things actually work in practice. Maybe you can’t actually sample 100 trunks without walking across a contested international border. Maybe the idea of a straight-line transect which seemed doable from the perspective of a map doesn’t seem as realistic when you’re staring down a cliff. Ultimately, you’ll never be able to plan perfectly for fieldwork until the project is actually complete, and the final product will always be a compromise between what you did and what you now know you should have done. Don’t fight it, because this is inescapable – just be a little flexible, a little firm, and find the point of compromise that works for your project.
There’s a book by Trevor Legget called ‘Zen and the Ways’, where he talks about two terms one encounters in Japanese martial arts: isshin and zanshin. I’m fairly certain I’m butchering them, but I see isshin (‘one-heart’) as a single-minded focus, an in-the-moment ‘zenning out’ on the task at hand. This is certainly how I get through the taxing or difficult periods of data collection in the field, and I think it’s true of others. There just isn’t another way to sit in a hailstorm for another four hours trying to write with frozen fingers, or to make it up that last mountain pass with a press full of collections on your back. Zanshin(‘remaining heart’) is a wider awareness, meta-level thinking about what you’ve done, why you’ve done it, and what you’re going to do.
Perhaps true samurai, or tenured faculty, can always maintain the right balance of isshin and zanshin. For me, it’s harder – it’s easy to get stuck in just getting the planned work done. Equally, it can also be a trap to constantly be questioning yourself or changing methods, and end up with data that’s not comparable, not efficiently collected, or not collected at all. I think it can be important to plan in times to stop and cultivate zanshin. In the evenings, or those break days that Leticia mentioned (in her previous post to the Naked Darwin), take some time over your well-deserved beer to evaluate and evolve your plans. During the work days, focus on getting things done, and file away those nagging doubts for the appropriate time.


Some rules of thumb which probably hold true no matter how your plan evolves
Back up your data. If you can’t get it in the cloud, make two or three digital copies and keep them in physically separated locations (keydrives, camera cards, etc.). If you can’t do that, make physical copies. You’re never going to get that year back if all of the data you collected during it goes up in smoke.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. It’s a new field site, country, species, discipline, culture, method, or trail. Someone (or maybe almost everyone) knows more than you do. Ask for advice! I’m always scared to do this, and it always, always is worth it.

Don’t just take data, take metadata. Take much more than you think you need. Whether it’s in a fieldbook, or going through and putting tags on your photos, don’t underestimate your power to forget things in a day or a year. You *will* be grateful that you wrote down that person’s full name, detailed your custom designed sampling scheme, drew a map of where that nest is, or took a photo of your altimeter between every photo you took a photo of a species on your alpine transect. Data is your friend. Metadata is your friend with benefits.

Remember your limits, and those of others with you, and communicate about them. These aren’t always the safest conditions. Just because you can’t catch your breath and are feeling dizzy, doesn’t mean that the team member ahead of you knows that you’re getting mountain sickness. Alternately, just because you’re feeling tired but can totally make that last push to collect another sample doesn’t mean that everyone on your team can.


View from my rooftop on Yunnan, China

Yulong Mountain, Robbie’s field site

Rhododendron racemosum – 2800 meters above sea level

Rhododendron racemosum – 2800 meters

Rhododendron impeditum – 3800 meters

Rhododendron impeditum – 3800 meters

Courtesy of Robbie Hart.


Careers in Biology – Zoo based conservation

How can I work at a zoo? What do employees at a zoo do behind the scenes? Dr. Eric Miller, from the Saint Louis Zoo, provides students with an insider’s view on the day-to-day responsibilities of directing a zoo, tips on getting hired in the zoo/conservation field, and so much more!

Zoo wordle

In this column of The Naked Darwin, you will find interviews with outstanding professionals that have devoted their careers to different fields of Biology. Here, they share their expertise in their career, and we hope our readers can gain from the knowledge and advice they will share. The interviews are performed by students from the University of Missouri-St Louis, who are taking the seminar “Careers in Biology” offered by Dr. Parker.

This week in Careers in Biology – a series of interviews: Dr. Eric Miller on Zoo based conservation. Dr. Miller’s interview was conducted by graduate students Courtney Pike, Whitney Collins and Alicia Marty. This is a guest post by one of the students, Courtney Pike, who is doing a Masters at the Biology Department, University of Missouri, St. Louis under the supervision of Dr. Parker.

Dr. Eric Miller, senior Vice President of the Saint Louis Zoo. Photo from the Saint Louis Zoo website.

Dr. Eric Miller is Senior Vice President at the Saint Louis Zoo. He also serves as the zoo’s Director for both Zoological Operations and the WildCare Institute and holds a DVM.  Dr. Miller was inspired to enter the zoo conservation field at a young age.  After reading the book “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson when he was a child, he decided to do many of his school projects on the effects of pesticides. Dr. Miller knew he wanted to pursue a career in biology and the applied aspects of being a veterinarian was the perfect fit. When he learned that he could be a Zoo Vet and have an impact on conservation programs, he knew he was on his ideal path.

Below are Dr. Miller’s answers to some of the students’ questions:

What is your job actually like on a daily basis? Do you spend the majority of your time in an office, around the zoo, traveling, doing fieldwork, or anything else particularly?

Dr. Miller: A typical day primarily includes working in an office and in administration roles, managing people rather than managing animals.  Traveling is required approximately 6-8 weeks out of the year to check on research projects and gain a better understanding of what is actually going on, along with attending meetings and conferences (WAZA, AZA, etc). As an active veterinarian, there are also opportunities to attend conferences related to medicine.

What are the advantages and disadvantages for having a DVM versus a different graduate degree?

Dr. Miller: A DVM (and most graduate degrees) will provide you with problem-solving skills, which are essential to succeed as a conservation researcher. The main difference with a DVM is that it is mostly applied science, rather than theoretical. Many of the conservation research programs have a veterinarian that is involved, but it is not necessary to have a DVM to work in conservation, even in conservation medicine.

What types of entry-level positions are involved with zoo-based conservation?

Dr Miller made a few important points:

  1. Positions available: The WildCare Institute is a branch of the Saint Louis Zoo that formalizes their interests in and commitments to worldwide conservation. There are very few positions within the WildCare Institute as many researchers are hired in-country by NGO’s and other conservation organizations. Positions available within the WildCare Institute are zoo-based; specifically, the curators, zoological managers and zookeepers are also involved. Also, many graduate students from local universities are involved with some of the centers. Students are encouraged to contact the specific center leaders (usually the curators) to find opportunities to become involved
  1. How to enter the zoo field: Currently most zoo curators began as zookeepers and worked their way up; however, this is not always the case and there are occasionally openings based on expertise, including: Anthropologist, Endocrinologist, Educator, Curator for a specific taxonomic group, Nutritionist, Pathologist, and Des Lee Professor of Zoological Studies (currently Dr. Parker). There may even be positions available related to environmental policy, such as a lobbyist. Having animal management experience is great and anything that gets your foot in the door can be useful experience. Positions are very competitive; therefore, candidates must be persistent! The Saint Louis Zoo is a relatively stable organization and there is not a high turnover rate for researchers and curators. Some people that work in zoo-based research jobs have come from academia, but others may take the alternative path and leave zoo research for academia. However, the majority of people come from other zoos.
  1. Internships: There are many unpaid internship opportunities at the Saint Louis Zoo that could provide great experience while you obtain your degree. There are animal care internships, and a variety of research internships that focus on Animal Behavior, Animal Reproduction and Contraception, and Endocrinology. There are also internships available through the Institute for Conservation Medicine. Students interested in these internships can find more information at these links: 
  1. Other zoos may have similar opportunities as well. San Diego Zoo has Post-doctoral positions in Applied Behavior, Ecology, etc. The Saint Louis Zoo may have similar opportunities for post-doctoral work, but it would be on a case-by-case basis because there is not a formal program. The National Zoo in Washington D.C. used to have an internship program that took Ph.D. students and taught them the animal management side of zoo operations.
  1. The Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago houses the Population Management Center that occasionally has openings for graduates with skills regarding population management, genetics, and database management. Other opportunities can be found on the AZA website.
  1. Occasionally, the zoo may need someone to spearhead a new laboratory. Dr. Parker is the go-to researcher for genetics work, but other zoos may need similar people. However, not every zoo needs the same research labs and may sub-specialize within genetics, for example. The San Diego Zoo has an in-house genetics staff and lab, while the Saint Louis Zoo has an in-house endocrinology staff and lab, and nutrition staff and lab. They also have a modest genetics lab used by keepers and zoological managers that were trained at UMSL.
  1. All positions at the Saint Louis Zoo receive on-the-job training in addition to any formal degree requirements specific to each position.
  1. Specific positions for CMB students would include some of the aspects of the research with endocrinology, physiology and contraception, and population genetics. Additionally, there is more genetic research being conducted at the San Diego Zoo.
  1. Students interested in the education programs at the Saint Louis Zoo can contact Louise Bradshaw, the Director of Education.
  2. Alternatively, aquariums may also involve conservation efforts and have positions, such as an aquarist/aquarium keeper, available.

What qualifications and skills sets are necessary to be a top candidate for these positions?

The three skills that Dr. Miller utilizes most frequently are communication, problem solving, and animal management. It is crucial to understand and excel at all three aspects.

Dr. Miller: The specific skills that are required to be a conservation researcher depend on the area and the skill set that is needed. It is best to be a free thinker who can also work in a team setting. One must be able to work in a group, but also maintain his or her opinion and identity. It is important to be passionate, but also to understand that your coworkers are just as passionate and that you should work together to solve problems. In addition, every zoo should be involved with fieldwork in some way and most are. It is important to have the skills to manage wild populations similarly to captive populations until the conservation threats are eliminated.

What would a typical salary range be for these positions?

Dr. Miller: For Zookeepers at the Saint Louis Zoo, salaries range from the mid to high $30K range, while research biologist salaries, depending on their experiences, range from $60K to $85K. Another important point is that zoo jobs are not similar to industry jobs- it is not typical to rise up and make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

What are job securities and benefits like for these types of positions?

Dr. Miller: There is no tenure for zoo-based researchers and benefits are on a zoo-by-zoo basis. Globally, economies are changing and so are benefits programs, but the Saint Louis Zoo has a great benefits package and retirement plan.

What are the specific types of research projects researchers are in charge of?

Dr. Miller provided references for different types of research programs. The specific programs are chosen because there is someone (typically a curator) that is passionate about a specific species or region of the world. Then, the program can proceed from there and often involves collaborations. Below are links to the various programs’ websites:

1.See for information on the WildCare Institute programs, most of which are led by one of the zoo’s animal division curators. The Curator leads their conservation center in addition to managing the animals and staff in their departments at the zoo.

2. See for information regarding the Institute for Conservation Medicine for additional research projects.

3. Also see for information regarding the Saint Louis Zoo’s reproductive biology program for additional research projects.

4. Other zoos, such as Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, offer additional research programs or are involved in collaborations. See for information regarding projects.

How do you obtain funding for these programs? Do you specifically write grant proposals or is it provided by the zoo?

Dr. Miller: Funding for the zoo and its research programs comes partially from the Zoo Friends Association and the Conservation Carousel at the zoo. There are also outside donors that financially support the zoo. The Curators can also write grant proposals and work with outside organizations to obtain funding. There are some grants that the zoo is not eligible to apply for directly, but by working with universities or museums, the zoo can apply for them. Significantly large grants are becoming rarer, as we often see in academia, but there are many small grants available.

Are there many publications that result from this research? And who writes them?

Dr. Miller states that many publications result from this research, but in his opinion there should be more. He feels that it is not worth doing the research if you do not plan to publish your findings. The partners and scientists doing the work often write the publications. If the curator or staff involved has a graduate degree and the ability to write publications, they certainly do.

Do you collaborate with outside institutions or governments? How important is this when doing conservation work?

Dr. Miller: The Saint Louis Zoo has 180 partners in collaboration. There is a great deal of collaboration that takes place between the zoo and in-country NGOs and existing conservation organizations. There are no formal collaborations with the WWF, for example, but the zoo is always willing to cooperate with them when needed. Researchers at the Saint Louis Zoo also have collaborations with many institutions in Saint Louis, including Washington University, Saint Louis University, and primarily with University of Missouri-St. Louis. Collaborations also occur outside St. Louis, such as one with Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.

We would like express our gratitude to Dr. Miller for sharing his experiences while working in the zoo field and for providing advice to students pursuing a similar career path.

Courtney Pike

About Courtney Pike: I am fascinated by many aspects of science, but my interests gravitate toward behavioral ecology, disease ecology, and conservation. I also have a special fondness of birds and amphibians. Currently, I am a Master’s student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis in Dr. Patricia Parker’s lab. For my Master’s thesis, I am collaborating with Charlotte Causton and the Charles Darwin Research Station to study Philornis downsi, an ectoparasitic fly in the Galapagos Islands and exploring its potential role in avian disease transmission there. Additionally, I am interning at the Audubon Center at Riverlands.

Careers in Biology – Funding science: getting grants

Where do I get money for my research? How does the whole process work? Should I be desperate if I don’t get this grant? Dr. Kellogg gives priceless advice on all these questions and a whole other array of topics that are important when writing grants.

In this column of The Naked Darwin, you will find interviews with outstanding professionals that have devoted their careers to different fields of Biology. Here, they share their expertise in their career, and we hope our readers can gain from the knowledge and advice they will share. The interviews are performed by students from the University of Missouri-St Louis, who are taking the seminar “Careers in Biology” offered by Dr. Parker.

word cloud grant writing

This week in Careers in Biology – a series of interviews: Dr. Elizabeth Kellogg on Funding science: getting grants. Dr. Kellogg’s interview was conducted by grad students Courtney Pike and Whitney Collins.

Dr. Kellogg studies evolutionary developmental genetics and systematics of plants, and currently has three NSF-funded projects at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis.

Dr. Elizabeth Kellogg

Dr. Elizabeth E. Kellogg is a PI at Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, MO. Photo from Danforth Center website

     “Write up what you want to do, why you want to do it, why anyone would care, and how much it will cost.”

     “Your job as a scientist is to be a writer.”

                                                                                                     – Dr. Kellogg 

The questions/answers below will undoubtedly provide you with a lot of good advice, but Dr. Kellogg also made other important points during her interview:

  1.  Learn what projects you can do with what resources.
  2. Assuming you need funding, understand what organizations are appropriate for your research and your professional level.
  3. Make sure to follow grant proposal directions carefully.
  4. Be clear, concise and compelling while keeping your reviewers in mind.
  5. Take rejections as constructive criticism.
  6. Deadlines are DEADLINES!

Here are some of the pieces of advice students got from more direct questions:

How would you structure a project if you were not certain you would obtain grant funds?

Dr. Kellogg: Good science is still possible with limited funding. It is a good strategy to start with projects that require little or no outside funding and that use resources currently at hand. There is an art to figuring out what you can do with what you have now.

Are there any particular agencies or websites/organizations you would recommend to researchers to obtain support for their research?

Dr. Kellogg pointed out different venues to get funded.

1) Scientific societies are usually deeply dedicated to teaching a new generation of scientists. It is a good place to get started with small grants. Several of these societies have student grants.

2) Foundations vary greatly in the kinds of grants they offer and if they do, often with specific goals.

3) Federal agencies such as NIH, USDA, DOE, DOD, and NASA are mission driven. For example, NSF funds basic science and education, whereas NIH focuses on medical research. These are the agencies most researches apply for. NSF provides a great source of funding for PhD students who want to improve their dissertation with the Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (DDIG). These grants are usually shorter in duration, capped at approximately $15K, and have the PhD’s advisor as the nominal PI.

What are the key components of a successful grant proposal?

Dr. Kellogg had several suggestions about this specific question, which is a very useful one. Here’s a summary:

  1. Clarity.  i. Ideas must be clear to everyone who reads the proposal. ii. Editing is key!
  2. Once you are closer to your final proposal submission, having a peer outside your immediate field review your proposal for editing may be helpful.
  3. Colleagues within your field may be helpful in condensing materials when needed.
  4. Excitement!
  5. Emphasis on the project’s significance and further contribution to science and to the general population.
  6. Feasibility.
  7. Follow precise details and directions regarding formatting of proposals, which will differ by funding agency.
  8. A deadline is a deadline! Pay attention to them.

What are general criteria that have little effect on whether a proposal is funded?

Dr. Kellogg: Whether the PI or institution is famous makes no difference for the panel analyzing the proposals. Also, letters of recommendation don’t have much impact for grant proposals, unless they are extremely negative.

How much time does it take to prepare a grant proposal?

Dr. Kellogg: You should allow plenty of time to compose multiple drafts with careful edits before final submission. Some grant proposals may take weeks to even months to write. It is good experience to write practice proposals to gain clarification on ideas and the process of writing.

In general, how are most grants disbursed?

Dr. Kellogg: Larger grants may be disbursed over time (e.g., 20% every year for five years), and are usually awarded to an institution, which requires the scientist to work with the grants office within the institution. Some scientific societies, on the other hand, write personal checks for smaller grants.

What happens to grant funds if you do not use all that was awarded?

Dr. Kellogg: Larger grants, such as the ones from the federal agencies, may no longer be available for use if money is not utilized by the end of the funding period and may be returned to the funding agency.

In general, how are review panels at the federal level (e.g., NSF, NIH) organized?

Dr. Kellogg: Panels are comprised of 10-20 people chosen to be fair-minded that tend to have broad interests. Each panelist will read 20-25 grant proposals, and each proposal is read by three or more of them. They meet in person for 2-3 days and discuss each proposal individually. There are policies regarding conflicts of interest preventing reviewers from participating on specific proposal reviews – a panelist in conflict on a particular proposal may not see the proposal and must leave the room during that discussion. Most reviewers are not paid although some organizations provide paid positions

How do you handle a rejected proposal?

Dr. Kellogg: “Everyone has his or her own way of handling rejection. I usually give myself a week or so to digest it and then can think more clearly about how to respond.”

Can you write multiple proposals for a single project?

Dr. Kellogg: No, you should have different proposals for different components of your research.

If you submit a grant proposal that was denied, can you rewrite it and submit it to other agencies?

Dr. Kellogg: Yes. Grant proposals may be rewritten and resubmitted anywhere. First-time investigators can submit the same proposal to more than one Federal agency; experienced investigators, however, cannot.

You are applying for a follow-up grant with an agency in which you have previously received grants. When applying, can you assume that reviewers are aware of your previous research and awards?

Dr. Kellogg: No, you must start from scratch. Each panel is new, and even if some people are repeaters, they may have read many things since they read your last proposal. You should always make your strongest case every time.

Can you make changes to a project after funding/grants have been approved?

Dr. Kellogg: Yes, grants are not “contracts”; if you find another method that would work better, use it! Grants tend to be flexible. You may not, however, use the funding for an entirely different project.

Do university/institutions provide any funding for professors?

Dr. Kellogg: Depends entirely on the university/institution. Most universities/institutions provide what is known as a ”start-up package” which provides funding to get research off the ground in support of obtaining additional funding. In addition, some universities have internal competitive funding. For example, the University of Missouri system has competitive $75,000 grants to faculty from all four campuses, and the University of Missouri – Saint Louis has competitive $12,500 grants. However, if funding cannot be obtained this may affect one’s ability to become tenured.

What do you think will happen in the future regarding the increasing number of PhD students/early professionals and the declining funding?

Dr. Kellogg: Good scientists will find ways to continue to do science with or without funding.

We would like to thanks Dr. Kellogg for giving us such insightful advice on how to write grants. Hopefully with these guidelines, we’ll have to rely less on ice cream comforting! 😉

Darwin’s finches “reversing” their famous process of speciation

In a paper published this week on the American Naturalist, Kleindorfer et al. report on how one of the subgroups of Darwin’s finches, the insectivorous tree finches, are collapsing back via hybridization, and also suggest the extinction of the large tree finch, Camarhynchus psittacula.

The Darwin finches are some of the most iconic examples of adaptive evolutionary radiation, and consequently, speciation. There are some curious facts about the history behind Darwin’s finches that I think are interesting to share. History that which obviously involves our beloved blog namesake, Mr. Darwin.

Darwin finches, from Wikipedia.

Darwin finches, from Wikipedia.

Charles Darwin was known for his likings of hunting and avidity in collecting, and perhaps for that reason I always pictured Darwin happily shooting all kinds of finches in Galapagos and instantly recognizing how that was a major find, and making all the intricate connections between adaptive morphology and speciation. However, it was another shipmate of the Beagle, Syms Covington, who did most of the bird collections in Galapagos.

As with almost all breakthroughs, the “eureka” moment of this famous Darwin episode was an afterthought. Darwin didn’t even discuss the finches in the diary of his voyage on the Beagle at much length. At the time, Darwin thought those were blackbirds and gross-beaks. Only after being back in England is when the famous ornithologist John Gould identified those Galapagos birds as “a series of ground finches which are so peculiar [as to form] an entirely new group, containing 12 species.” After Gould had made his findings public is when Darwin associated their incredible morphological adaptation to the species divergence concept, when he noted that “seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends”. Also interesting is that, nowadays, we know Darwin’s finches diverged from a group of Tiaris birds, which originated in the Caribbean islands and then spread to Central and South America, and finally to the Galapagos.

Now, to add to their glorified fame as teachers of the workings of evolution, Darwin’s finches are showing us a snapshot of the reverse process. The paper of Kleindorfer et al – just hot off the presses on the American Naturalist (Feb. 24th) –  looked at the three Camarhyncus species, known as tree finches, in one of the Galapagos islands, Floreana, to test the mechanisms and functions of annual patterns of hybridization in these sympatric species.

Images of three sympatric tree finches from Floreana Island in 2010. A, genetic population 1; B, hybrid tree finch; and C, genetic population 2. From Kleindorfer et al (2014).

Images of three sympatric tree finches from Floreana Island in 2010. A, genetic population 1; B, hybrid tree finch; and C, genetic population 2. From Kleindorfer et al (2014).

“The three Camarhyncus species on Floreana Island are of special interest because Lack (1947) singled them out as a paradigmatic example of successful speciation in Darwin’s finches. The medium tree finch probably originated from a “small morph” of the large tree finch from Isabela Island, which was either followed by (Lack 1947) or preceded by (Grant 1999) separate colonization events of “large morph” large tree finches from Santa Cruz Island and small tree finches from another island. […] Evidence that we present here, however, suggests that these three species may represent a case of evolution in reverse …”

They had birds collected at three different time periods, 1900s, 2005, and 2010.  Their morphological and genetic analyses suggest that through time, species composition started to move away from the three distinct clusters (small, medium, and large), and by 2010, there were two species left, the small and the medium tree finches, along if a population of hybrids between the two.

“The results presented here go to the heart of evolutionary biology: by what criteria do we denote species, and by what criteria do new species form or collapse? Here we present evidence that three sympatric species of Darwin’s tree finches in the 1900s have collapsed, under conditions of hybridization, into two species by the 2000s.”

They argue that their results show a case of disassortative mating, where the females of the “small tree finches” (Camarhynchus parvulus) are choosing among the larger of the “medium tree finches” (Camarhynchus pauper), creating a hybrid population of intermediate morphology. As for the “large tree finch” species, Camarhynchus psittacula, they don’t appear in any of their collections during the 2000s, and authors suggest there is a chance the species has gone extinct.

Eggs taking the place of seals in polar bear dinner table

What is the relation between polar bears and Canadian geese, I ask you? Well, the predation kind! Last year there was a lot of media coverage (e.g.) on a series of papers from a group with the American Museum of Natural History in New York that suggested polar bears were diversifying their diet from their usual mammal-based dinners to a more omnivorous one, as a result of ice habitat melting.

“… a series of papers based on analysis of polar bear poop […] indicate that at least some of the bears are finding food to eat when they come ashore, ranging from bird eggs and caribou to grass seeds and berries.” (John Roach, NBC News)

This time, a group from Carleton University and the Environment Canada-National Wildlife Research Centre, in Ottawa, Canada, conducted a research published this month on the Proceedings of the Royal Society B (281: 20133128), showing a direct correlation between diminishing sea ice coverage and the use of ancillary prey resources. In the past three decades, polar bear visits to “snack sites”, like the nests of colonial birds, have increased seven-fold. Their research attests to the resilience of polar bears in the face of climate change, but also suggests ecological impacts on lower rungs of the food ladder.

Polar bear in thick billed murre colony. Cape Pembroke. Proc. R. Soc. B 281: 20133128

Polar bear in thick billed murre colony. Cape Pembroke. From: Proc. R. Soc. B 281: 20133128

How blogs/blogging can add to your career

Last year, Inger Mewburn  & Pat Thomson published a paper (Studies in Higher Education 2013, DOI:10.1080/03075079.2013.835624) on a relatively small-scale research to analyze what academics blog about and why. Blogging has become increasingly common over the last few years, especially among young researchers, and this paper introduced a good summary of the current reasons why. According to their research based on 100 academic blogs “academics most commonly write about academic work conditions and policy contexts, share information and provide advice”. I read their paper when I was on the verge of deciding whether to go ahead and start writing a blog, and decided to do some searching of my own about what it is that academics blog about and if it was worth doing it. So, here is what I found.

Most of what I looked for was related to biology, obviously, because that is what I do. There are some pretty good ones out there, and for me, the best I get from them is information on topics that are a little outside of my scope and therefore would normally not read anywhere else. That is, it is a great way of being on the loop about other research topics that are not relevant to your own exactly, but that are fun to know about! Just a few of my favorite ones, in case you’re interested: The Molecular Ecologist, Dynamic EcologyEEB and Flow, and The Loom. For me, there is nothing like a Sunday morning browsing through the lire app where all my feeds are combined.

There are people who really go all in and you can find inspiring stories out there of graduate students that started blogging about their own research and got so involved with it, they are developing part of their carriers though it. Jeremy Yoder, for example, tells the story of when he began blogging about things he found interesting while still in grad school and nowadays is the manager for the aforementioned blog, the Molecular Ecologist.

But, really, why do most academics blog? Does it help with readership of the articles that are being blogged about? I found that the answer to that seems to be yes, at least according to this experiment done by Melissa Terras with her own articles, where she introduces this interesting formula: If (social media interaction is often) then (open access + social media = increased downloads). However, Thompson and Mewburn suggest that what really gets this world spinning is the global meeting place it provides. It is not always about outreach. Research now has the potential to be collaborative in ways never achieved before, and blogging appears to play a significant role in this. There is a lot of discussion going on (yes, in the form of blogging, but also in journals like this one) about how social media is changing the way we do science. My personal opinion is that the change has indeed started, if not entirely revolutionizing yet, certainly a major force to be aware of. Social media is how a lot of us communicate, where we look for things that interest us.

Interested? Now, there are different scales to this. If you’re looking for a place to start, there are manuals on how to start microblogging through Twitter (“How to start tweeting”), but if you’re feeling brave, check out this A to Z guide on social media for academia. All in all, social media can certainly open up new forms of communication and dissemination.

Poster describing the results of a study examining Twitter use among a sample of 8,826 academics from 5 universities. Authors Jason Priem, Kaitlin Costello and Tyler Dzuba

Poster describing the results of a study examining Twitter use among a sample of 8,826 academics from 5 universities. Authors Jason Priem, Kaitlin Costello and Tyler Dzuba. From figshare .