Ben Vernasco studies the social dynamics and physiology of dancing birds

From Fralin Spotlight

by Cassandra Hockman

Ben Vernasco knew he wanted to pursue a Ph.D. in conservation biology while studying tropical birds in Peru. After his trip, he got in touch with his mentor, Brandt Ryder, a research ecologist at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C.

Ryder and his Virginia Tech colleague Ignacio Moore, an associate professor of biological sciences in the College of Science, had just received a National Science Foundation grant with a spot for a graduate student. Vernasco was in luck.


Ben Vernasco

Now, Vernasco is a doctoral student in biological sciences at Virginia Tech, and studies the wire-tailed manakin, or Pipra filicauda – a tropical bird named for the wired filaments on its tail and known by researchers for its unique social display: the males perform to attract the females.

To some researchers, this display looks like a dance – these birds perform with quick, smooth moves, back and forth on a branch, while flicking their wings to make sound. Some people have likened the movements of the red-capped manakin to Michael Jackson’s moonwalk: a seamless backward slide. And another species, the club-winged manakin, rubs its wings together over its back to make a buzzing noise, a movement so fast it is invisible to the naked eye.

As part of their display, manakins perform on the same designated perches within their territories. They even alter the habitat around their perch by tearing down leaves to make it a better arena to dance in, said Vernasco.

But dancing to attract females is not the only thing unique about these displays – males also display with other males. Within a particular territory, males will display together in order to form the basis of what Vernasco explained are social coalitions. Within these coalitions, the same males display together for years in order to develop social hierarchies.

Watch the elaborate dance of the wire-tailed manakin:

During these male-to-male displays, one male will assume the position of the female, and the other will display to its comrade as if it were displaying to a female. Then, when a female comes by, the territory-holding male will take over and perform in order to mate, whereas the non-territory holders, or ‘floater’ males, will step aside until he makes his way up the social ladder.

“The more social bonds these floaters have,” said Vernasco, “the more likely they are to eventually gain a territory themselves and sire offspring.”

With Ryder and Moore’s guidance, Vernasco investigates this elaborate social behavior and its underlying physiology to get a better sense of the birds’ reproductive success and overall health. This includes measuring testosterone levels, which have been shown to increase when the males gain territory.

Read the complete story at Fralin 


Header photo: Wire-tailed Manakin by Joao Quental via Wikimedia Commons


Happy Earth Day! Time for action!

From BBC News

by Helen Briggs; April 22, 2015

Scientists are calling on world leaders to sign up to an eight-point plan of action at landmark talks in Paris.

The key element is the goal to limit global warming to below 2C by moving to zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The UN meeting in December is “the last chance” to avert dangerous climate change, according to the Earth League.

Scientific evidence shows this can be achieved, but only with bold action now, says an alliance of climate researchers from 17 institutions.

The statement involves eight calls for action:

  • Limiting global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius
  • Keeping future CO2 emissions below 1,000 gigatonnes (billion tonnes)
  • Creating a zero-carbon society by 2050
  • Equity of approach – with richer countries helping poorer ones
  • Technological research and innovation
  • A global strategy to address loss and damage from climate change
  • Safeguarding ecosystems such as forests and oceans that absorb CO2
  • Providing climate finance for developing countries.

Chair of the Earth League, Johan Rockstrom, of the Stockholm Resilience Centre in Sweden, said the statement set out the scientific stance on what needed to happen at the Paris talks.

“Six years after the failure at Copenhagen, the world now has a second chance to agree upon a safe pathway towards a future that does not undermine human well-being in the world.”

He said the statement summarised what the group of scientists believe has to happen at the Paris talks to avoid the risk of severe climate change linked with sea-level rise, heat waves, droughts and floods.

“The window is still open but just barely,” he said. “There is still an opportunity to transition into a safe, reasonably stable climate future.”

Read more…

William Hopkins receives Virginia Tech’s 2015 Alumni Award for Excellence in Research

From VT News

BLACKSBURG, Va., April 21, 2015 – William Hopkins, professor of fish and wildlife conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment ( at Virginia Tech, received the university’s 2015 Alumni Award for Excellence in Research.

Sponsored by the Virginia Tech Alumni Association, the Alumni Award for Excellence in Research is presented annually to as many as two Virginia Tech faculty members who have made outstanding research contributions. Alumni, students, faculty, and staff may nominate candidates. Each recipient is awarded $2,000.


Dr. William A. Hopkins

A member of the Virginia Tech community since 2005, Hopkins is a physiological ecologist who studies the influence of anthropogenic global changes such as pollution, habitat destruction, and climate change, on wildlife populations.

Hopkins, who is a Fralin Life Science Institute affiliate, is regarded as the world’s leading expert on the effects of solid wastes produced from coal combustion on wildlife populations. These wastes represent the second-largest type of solid waste produced in the United States and much of it is placed in open settling basins, referred to as coal ash ponds.

Hopkins’ research reveals that these disposal ponds pose a threat to wildlife because the ponds attract wildlife that are then exposed to high concentrations of pollutants, such as arsenic and selenium, which can cause cancer, developmental abnormalities, and reproductive failure. Because of his expertise, Hopkins regularly provides guidance to state and federal agencies and the utility industry; gives expert testimony in Washington, D.C.; and offers perspectives to major media outlets. He also served on the National Academy of Sciences committee on issues related to the disposal and regulation of these materials. His expertise evaluating the effects of solid wastes on wildlife has led him to work on some of the largest environmental disasters in U.S. history, including the BP oil spill and the Tennessee Valley Authority ash spill.

In addition, Hopkins is a pioneer in an emerging field examining the effects of microclimate on the early development of wildlife. Specifically, his research group has focused on how habitat conversion for agriculture, pollution, and weather conditions can interact to influence the incubation temperature of bird and reptile nests and how this influences embryonic development and the quality and survival of offspring produced.

Hopkins also has broken ground addressing one of the most fundamental problems in all of modern biology: How do responses at one level of biological organization (for example, cell or individual) translate to responses at higher levels of organization (populations or communities)? Hopkins’ team has integrated field surveys, elegant laboratory and field experiments, and theoretical models to demonstrate that when a mother’s health is compromised by pollution, it can influence the quality of the offspring she produces, which in turn can cause local population declines.

His team’s work goes further to demonstrate that effects on one population can actually influence the viability of other nearby, interdependent populations. These findings have led to a new way of thinking: that pollution in one place might cause wildlife population declines in other places that are not polluted. This work has implications for fields as diverse as human medicine, epidemiology, ecotoxicology, and conservation biology.

Hopkins has published 160 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, more than 110 since joining the Virginia Tech faculty. He has received more than $10 million in external research grants.

Earlier this year, Hopkins helped create and is the founding director of the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech, which seeks to study and address large-scale environmental problems, such as habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, disease, and climate change, with interdisciplinary, innovative team science, drawing on the diverse expertise of researchers across the university. The center is also home of the Interfaces of Global Change Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program.

Hopkins received his bachelor’s degree from Mercer University, a master’s degree from Auburn University, and a Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina.

Related Links

This story can be found on the Virginia Tech News website:

Explaining Climate Science

Don’t stop. Don’t give up. Even though it may feel like beating your head against the wall, take every opportunity to explain climate science to your friends, family, church members, students, and even the deniers you encounter on street corners. Kudos to the Interfaces of Global Change Program’s efforts to improve climate science communication.

Recently, 50 U.S. Senators voted “yea” on the following: “it is the sense of Congress that — (1) climate change is real; and (2) human activity significantly contributes to climate change (49 voted “nay”).

Senators who voted “yea” were more likely to represent states where a majority of constituents think anthropogenic caused climate change is real (see study by Yale Project on Climate Change Communication).

Good news? At least we know improved public understanding of climate correlates with the willingness of our elected officials to admit that climate change exists.

Now for the hard work: translating knowledge into action.

About the Author:

Bruce HullR Bruce Hull, For Resources; 2010 XCaliber Award for Excellence.. is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability and a professor in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation. He is also a faculty member in the Interfaces of Global Change IGEP. 

 Dr. Hull regularly blogs at Constructing Sustainability.



Special Seminar: Emma Rosi-Marshall from the Cary Institute will talk about pharmaceuticals as agents of ecological change in aquatic ecosystems


Dr. Emma J. Rosi-Marshall

This week’s EEB seminar speaker is Dr. Emma Rosi-Marshall from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem studies.

Learn how pharmaceutical pollution harms aquatic life and compromises the health of our nation’s freshwaters. Rosi-Marshall will also outline what is needed to combat the growing problem.”

Pharmaceutical and personal care products as agents of ecological change in aquatic ecosystems

More about Dr. Rosi-Marshall:
“Dr. Rosi-Marshall conducts research on factors that control and influence ecosystem function in human-dominated ecosystems. Freshwater is one of our most vital and threatened resources; understanding how human-driven global change impacts freshwater ecosystem function is essential. Dr. Rosi-Marshall’s research focuses on several aspects of human modifications to freshwater ecosystems such as land use change and restoration, widespread agriculture and associated crop byproducts, urbanization and the release of novel contaminants, and hydrologic modifications associated with dams.”

Where and When:
Thursday, 16 April, 3:30pm, Derring 4069

If you’d like to meet with Dr. Rosi-Marshall during her visit, contact Fred Benfield.

Ignacio Moore studies rare “Pinocchio Lizard” in Ecuador

By Lindsay Key (originally published at EurekAlert!)

For more than 50 years, scientists thought that the horned anole lizard — sometimes called the “Pinocchio Lizard” for its long, protruding nose — was extinct. But it turns out this is a tall tale.

Scientists re-discovered the lizard in 2005, living elusively at the tops of tall trees in the cloud forests of Ecuador — the only place in the world that it is known to exist.

A team led by a Virginia Tech scientist recently uncovered new information about the role that the lizard’s long nose plays. Only the males have long noses, and they appear to be used in social interactions, both among males and between males and females.

Previous investigators had wondered if the nasal appendage served as a weapon of some sort in male-male interactions.

Dr. Ignacio Moore

Dr. Ignacio Moore

“It’s important that we learn as much as we can about the natural history, social behavior, and ecology of this lizard, in order to save it from true extinction,” said Ignacio Moore, an associate professor of biological sciences in the College of Science, a Fralin Life Science Institute affiliate, and a faculty member with the new Global Change Center at Virginia Tech.

Moore and his colleagues presented their findings at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology in West Palm Beach, Florida. Quirola is now preparing an article about the findings.

While in Ecuador on research sabbatical, Moore partnered with Omar Torres-Carvajal, a faculty member at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador in Quito, and Torres-Carvajal’s undergraduate student Diego Quirola.

Late at night, wearing head lamps and shimmying up trees, the team was able to catch a few dozen lizards. They held them in an outdoor facility built to mimic the lizards’ natural habitat and observed them for a couple days, after which the lizards were returned to the exact branch where they were found.

“We were able to observe and videotape 11 copulations and two male-male combat scenarios,” said Quirola. “The nasal appendage was not used as a weapon in these interactions but was used as part of the social displays. The appendage is lifted during the social interactions although what role this specific movement plays is unclear.”

What is becoming clear is that the appendage is an important part of their social interactions and a unique aspect of the natural history of this remarkable lizard.

“Ultimately we are interested in knowing about the evolution of this appendage, which is only found in two other species of anole lizards from Peru and Brazil. Do males with larger appendages dominate those with smaller ones? Do females prefer males with larger appendages? Did the appendix evolve under sexual selection? We hope to get some answers,” said Torres-Carvajal.

Since it’s rediscovery in 2005, the Pinocchio lizard is quickly becoming a commodity for its strange beauty and rareness, with pet smugglers offering large sums of money for its capture.

“It’s important for scientists to educate the public about the biological importance of this lizard. It is not a pet but a truly remarkable product of nature,” said Moore.


Use of the proboscis during social interactions in the Ecuadorian Horned Anole, Anolis proboscis QUIROLA, D/*; MARMOL, A/; TORRES-CARVAJAL, O/; MOORE, I/T; Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador; Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador; Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador; Virginia Tech

Sexual selection has resulted in numerous examples of exaggerated traits that often are the focus of investigation. These traits are typically used in mate choice, intra-sexual competition, or both. In males this can result in the evolution of exaggerated secondary sexual characters, which may be indicative of the animal performance. Anolis proboscis is a slow-moving cryptic species, endemic to the western slopes of the Andes in Ecuador that was rediscovered in 2005 after it was believed extinct for nearly four decades. Despite its rediscovery, most of the natural history of this species remains almost completely unknown. The males of the species (adults and neonates) have a laterally compressed, soft, flexible, fleshy nasal appendage which they can move at their will. We investigated use of the nasal appendage in social interactions. We captured free-living A. proboscis in the area surrounding the town of Mindo, Pichincha Provence, located on the western slopes of the Andes in Ecuador and conducted behavioral trials approximately 5 km away from the collecting sites. For each trial, two lizards (two males, or one male and one female) were placed on branches of a tree with two video cameras recording the interactions. We were able to observe and videotape 11 copulations and 2 male-male combat. The nasal appendage was not used as a weapon in these interactions but was used as part of the social displays. Further, the appendage is lifted during the social interactions although what role this movement plays is unclear. Our studies are providing new insights of the social behavior of this species as well as providing clues into the use of exaggerated sexually selected traits.


About the author

Lindsay Key is a lover of words, animals, and all things science. She works as a communications officer for Fralin Life Science Institute at Virginia Tech. Previously, she served as research communications specialist for the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and journalist for The Roanoke Times. She holds a B.A. in English and Communications, MFA in Creative Writing, and is currently working on a master’s in natural resources.

Lead photo thanks to: Santiago R. Ron-FaunaWebEcuador


Postcards: Laura Schoenle arrives in Ontario for field season

laura_snowy_aviaries“Hi! I just arrived at the Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS) in Elgin, Ontario, and while we’re still in the midst of winter up here, the migratory birds are already returning. My personal favorite is the red-winged blackbird, and they are singing right now, even as the snow falls…

My research focuses on the role of hormones in shaping how birds cope with disease.  I have two exciting experiments planned for this summer, and each will become chapters in my Ph.D. dissertation. In the photo to the right, you can see me with the aviaries I am currently setting up for my experiments.

Ontario is ideal for my research because of the high prevalence of focal pathogens: the mosquito-transmitted Haemoproteus and Plasmodium blood parasites that cause avian malaria. In my study population of red-winged blackbirds, about 90% of adult birds are infected with malaria parasites. 

I’m anxious for the season to get rolling. Before I go, here’s a photo of a tree sparrow, quietly waiting for the snow to stop, and a few shots of my “home base” for this summer. Thought you’d like to see what I’m up to…”

—All the best, Laura

New arrivals: a tree sparrow
The Operations Center at the Biological Station
Our cabins



President Obama links public health and climate change

(CNN) Debates on climate change can break down fairly fast. There are those who believe that mankind’s activities are changing the planet’s climate, and those who don’t.

But a new way to talk about climate change is emerging, which shifts focus from impersonal discussions about greenhouse gas emissions and power plants to a very personal one: your health.

It’s easy to brush aside debates involving major international corporations, but who wouldn’t stop to think — and perhaps do something — about their own health, or the health of their children?

This new way of talking about climate change — and linking it to public health issues — was part of a roundtable discussion Tuesday at Howard University’s College of Medicine. President Barack Obama joined U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy for a roundtable discussion on the topic as part of National Public Health Week.

“I think we’ve always known — or at least in the 20th century we’ve understood — that environment has an impact on public health,” the President told CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

“I remember when I first went to college in Los Angeles in 1979, the air was so bad that you couldn’t go running outside,” Obama said. “You’d have air quality alerts, and people who had respiratory problems or were vulnerable had to stay inside. We took action, and the air’s a lot better.”

“There are a whole host of public health impacts that are going to hit home, so we’ve got to do better in protecting vulnerable Americans,” Obama continued. “Ultimately, though, all of our families are going to be vulnerable. You can’t cordon yourself off from air or climate.”

“Communities can start planning for prevention and mitigation efforts more effectively, and hopefully the other thing that happens is that families and parents join with these doctors and nurses to start putting some pressure on elected officials to try to make something happen to reduce the impacts of climate change,” said Obama.

Read the full story at CNN.