My Research Projects

I think there are few more exciting ways to spend your time than by learning things no one else has learned before you. Given that—and given how much we have left to figure out about how biodiversity works—a lot of my time is devoted to scientific research projects. Here at University of Minnesota—Twin Cities, my projects have centered around bird evolution, and have sought to answer questions like, “What are the relationships between a given group of species?” “How and where have they evolved as a lineage?” “Which branches on the bird tree of life deserve to be recognized as species?” and “How have the ecology and communication strategies used by each species changed as new species evolved?”

Here’s what I’m working on at the moment:

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Where do we draw the line between different species of Cantorchilus wrens?

A massive amount of progress in reconstructing the story of how bird species evolved has been made in the past few decades. Still, there are a few groups whose history still evades us. One of these groups are those noisy, skulking, drab brown songbirds known as the wrens. One of my advisors, Keith Barker, has been working on wren evolution for years. A few years back, part of this was re-writing how we classify the wren family into different genera, an endeavor that included him creating a new genus: Cantorchilus. That accomplished, how to divvy up Cantorchilus wren populations into equally divergent species has yet to be done. This is where I come in: by sequencing multiple genetic markers from Cantorchilus wren populations across South America, I’m working to resolve the uncertainty that remains in our understanding of these species, and begin to reconstruct their biogeography and the larger story of their evolution.

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Are there two species of Nashville Warbler?

Most of the time, when we think about where new species are out there waiting to be for discovered, we think of exotic, tropical places—not in what is practically in our backyards. This is especially the case for charismatic groups like songbirds. And yet, one of the best-known North American warbler species, Nashville Warbler, may actually be comprised of two distinct species—potentially a remarkable example of hidden species diversity right here in North America. As you can see in the eBird map above, the species breeds across eastern North American boreal forest…and also in western montane environments. Preliminary data suggests that these two populations aren’t even each other’s closest relatives, begging the question of how/why do they still look and sound like the same species. Using genome wide “UCE” sequencing, this project will involve studying the relationships between populations from all North American Oreothlypis warblers—a group of six species including the Nashville Warbler—with the hope being to resolve whether Nashville Warbler is one species or two.