Saturday, July 14, 2012

Introducing Ellen Bledsoe!

Hey everyone!

My name is Ellen Bledsoe. I was born in Berkeley, CA, but my family now lives in Augusta, GA (talk about a big change!).  This year I’ll be a senior at Mount Holyoke College, a small all-women’s college in South Hadley, MA. I’m a Biology major and an English minor. I’ll tell you a little bit more about myself later, but first let’s get to the research!

This summer, I’m working with…these guys:  

Surprised? They definitely aren’t Dan’s usual study subjects. I’m doing a behavioral study that focuses on the response behavior of White Crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys , on left) and American Robins (Turdus migratorius, on right). As it turns out, Dan has another project going on aside from his marmots. He is fond of claiming that I am studying “the sound of fear.” What we are considering to be “the sound of fear” are sounds that are nonlinear. Examples of nonlinear sounds include white noise, abrupt frequency shifts and subharmonics. There are complicated physics explanations for what nonlinear sounds are, which I can’t quite grasp, but the general idea is that they are sounds with a form of distortion and are therefore unpredictable. They are often found in mammalian alarm calls (such as in marmots!) and can be produced when too much air is pushed through a vocal system, such as when an animal is in extreme stress.  The idea behind the study is that due to the unpredictable nature of nonlinear sounds, these sounds will be more challenging to habituate to and may offer a more honest signal to conspecifics about nearby danger.

Without going into too much gritty detail, I’m using five different stimuli: two “linear” controls and three nonlinear experimental sounds. Once I find a bird and am within 10-15 meters of it, I dictate behavior into a recorder for 30 seconds, play a stimulus, and record behavior for another 60 seconds. I then can compare the baseline behavior of the bird to its response to the stimulus. We expect that the nonlinear sounds with result in more evocative behavior, such as looking or flying. After a preliminary look at the data, we aren’t seeing as strong of results as we expected, but I’m still in the process of collecting data. I’ll be sure to keep you updated!

So that is the general idea of the research I’m conducting this summer. It means a lot of early mornings and a lot of bike riding. But I’m looking forward to the results! Now, for a little bit more about me outside of being an ecology and biology nerd! I love reading, especially books by Margaret Atwood and William Faulkner. Throughout high school and for my first year of college, I rowed, but due to injuries had to stop. I definitely miss being out on the water and watching the sun rise, though. I also really love music! I was in show choir in high school and, once I went off to college,  joined the local Sweet Adelines International chapter, which is an international women’s barbershop organization. I’m by far the youngest in the chorus (by at least 30 years!).  I also am in a West African drumming ensemble at school, where I drum, dance and sing. As for academic interests, I’ve always been had a passion for Africa—its people, its animals, its ecosystems—as well as the interface between animal behavior and its application to conservation biology. I’ve had the opportunity to study abroad in both Tanzania and South Africa and can’t wait to go back. Currently, my future plans include grad school in the next few years for a PhD in ecology and then perhaps academia. But who knows what the future holds!

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