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Research Directory

Research

Cornell Lab scientists use the latest technology in the quest to understand the natural world. This work includes teasing evolutionary secrets from DNA, deciphering wildlife sounds, and discovering how birds, elephants, whales, and other animals survive and communicate in a changing world. Our researchers collaborate with colleagues across Cornell University and with partners at many other agencies and organizations around the world.

Project Highlights

Capturing Animal Sounds

Cornell Lab scientists and engineers build and deploy automated recording devices that capture the sounds of animals on land or in the ocean. Underwater devices help decipher marine mammal communication, census populations, and gauge the impact of human-caused noise pollution. Land-based recording units monitor endangered birds, forest elephants, and other animals in remote and inhospitable places. Automated recording devices also document the calls of songbirds that migrate overhead at night.

Analyzing Animal Sounds

The massive amount of digital acoustic data gathered by our remote recordings devices created the need for a way to automatically scan all that data to pull out sounds of interest for further study. Sound analysis software created at the Cornell Lab, called Raven and Raven Lite, is used by scientists and anyone interested in animal vocalizations to display sounds visually as spectrograms so they can be measured and analyzed.

Monitoring Bird Migration

Most songbird migration happens at night, when it’s hard to detect. With durable, autonomous recording devices programmed to run for months at a time in remote sites, we gather information about the timing, location, and species composition of nocturnal bird migration. These audio recordings describe massive movements of migrating birds, information that is crucial for conservation planning.

Tracking Migration Over the Gulf of Mexico

Each spring and fall, hundreds of millions of birds make a 600-mile, nonstop flight across the Gulf of Mexico. There is still much basic natural history we do not know about this specific migration path. We are collaborating with the University of Delaware, the Smithsonian Institution, abd Oklahoma University to study migration patterns in this region using weather surveillance radar. This is part of a project funded by National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Southern Company.

The Macaulay Library Archive

The Lab’s Macaulay Library is the world’s largest online archive of natural sound audio and video recordings. The collection is always growing as both amateur and professional recordists submit their media online. Researchers, educators, and anyone, anywhere can explore the online archive. Listen to recordings of a given species, watch video of captivating animal behavior. Learn how you can contribute recordings.

Exploring Species Distribution

To explore where birds live and how their distribution may be changing, we developed a new modeling framework that incorporates time- and region-specific elements into a predictive analysis. The resulting spatiotemporal exploratory models (STEMs) can be used to study how populations respond over time to broad-scale changes in land-use patterns, pollution, or climate. Using these dynamic maps, we will also be able to monitor changes in migration flyways, key to developing conservation strategies for at-risk species.

Habitat Fragmentation and the Florida Scrub-Jay

The Florida Scrub-Jay is a federally threatened species found in the few remaining patches of oak scrub in Florida. Habitat fragmentation, development, and fire suppression have contributed to a steep population decline in this species. By studying its genetics, we’ve learned about the species’ movement patterns between habitat patches. With this information, we can preserve what remains of the genetic variation in the species by translocating birds as well as conserving and restoring habitat.

Birds and Climate Change

Climate has an enormous influence on where birds survive and reproduce. In the short term, weather can influence the timing of migration, territory establishment, breeding, and egg laying. Over the long term, species have adapted to seasonal weather trends. We combine data from citizen-science projects with long-term weather data to examine climate's role in the changes we are seeing in the ranges of some bird species, as well as the timing and outcomes of breeding.

Reproduction, Behavior, and Climate Change

In collaboration with researchers at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, we are investigating how bird behavior may change in response to climate change. We study Black-throated Blue Warblers to understand how changes in weather and food abundance affect reproductive hormones, behavior, and the species’ long-term health. We also use recordings from our Macaulay Library to examine how song differences between populations may lead to splitting this species in two.

Noise Pollution in the Ocean

Marine mammals rely on sound to communicate with one another. Yet the ocean is so noisy from shipping, underwater energy exploration and development, sonar exploration, and other human activities that we are drowning them out, including the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale. Our Bioacoustics Research Program is studying the responses of marine mammals to noise in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and in other areas to assess the long-range impact of this “acoustic smog.”

Protecting North Atlantic Right Whales

We use our underwater devices to record, monitor, and protect endangered North Atlantic right whales along the East Coast. Fewer than 500 of these animals remain. We use this information to understand how whales are affected by energy exploration, shipping, and other human activities. With partners, we have established the Right Whale Listening Network in Massachusetts Bay to notify ship captains to slow down when right whales are detected nearby, preventing deadly collisions.

Listening to Endangered Forest Elephants

In the dense forests of Central Africa, endangered forest elephants are difficult to study and protect because they are so difficult to see. We use automated sound-recording equipment to collect their vocalizations. This gives our Elephant Listening Project and local biologists valuable information about elephant numbers, movements, and communication. We use this information to improve our understanding of elephants and to protect their dwindling numbers from poaching and disturbance from logging and seismic energy exploration.

House Finch Eye Disease

During the winter of 1993–94, people began reporting House Finches with red, swollen eyes. The cause was a mutated form of bacteria common in poultry. Within three years, roughly 60% of House Finches in eastern North America were dead. Our Bird Population Studies researchers launched a citizen-science program called the House Finch Disease Survey to document the spread of the disease and they continue to investigate why the bacteria has been so persistent and successful.

Genetics and House Finch Eye Disease

Another way we study House Finch eye disease is by examining the genetic diversity of House Finches in relation to their susceptibility to this disease. We’ve discovered that the introduced population of House Finches in eastern North America is substantially less genetically diverse than the native population in western North America. We are also studying the numerous strains of the bacteria, to learn where the strain infecting finches may have arisen.

Avian Malaria

Students working in the Fuller Evolutionary Biology Lab have investigated the ecology and evolution of avian malaria. Studies have surveyed the host distributions of particular avian malaria species and tested the ability of various mosquito species to transmit avian malaria among hosts. Work done in collaboration with the Chicago Field Museum used sequenced DNA from 170 strains of malaria to clarify the genetic evolution of this single-celled organism that originated at least half a billion years ago.

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Climate change is predicted to increase weather extremes. In species that engage in extra-pair copulations, adverse weather could cause males to spend less time and effort looking for mates, and reduce the incidence of extra-pair paternity. But the effects of weather on reproductive behavior remain poorly understood. We are examining the influence of weather on rates of extra-pair paternity in Black-throated Blue Warblers along an elevational gradient with a range of climatic conditions.

Cooperative Breeding: Acorn Woodpeckers

The Acorn Woodpecker is highly dependent on acorns from California oaks. We study the complex relationship between this species and the trees, as well as their fascinating breeding biology. Acorn Woodpeckers live in family groups of up to 15 individuals. Several related males compete to mate with several breeding females, all of whom lay their eggs in a single nest cavity. Offspring from these joint nests help raise the group's young for up to several years.

Population Synchrony: Acorn Production by California Oaks

Oaks are well known “masting” species—acorn production varies greatly from year to year, but is highly synchronized among trees. Acorns are a critical food for many kinds of wildlife, including Acorn Woodpeckers. Walter Koenig leads a team in surveying acorn production to understand variability in acorn production, including why productivity differs, how far synchrony in acorn production extends, and what effects the variability has on California’s wildlife.

Birds of Paradise Courtship Behavior

For more than a decade, Lab scientist Edwin Scholes has used digital video to document and study the courtship behaviors of New Guinea’s birds-of-paradise (family Paradisaeidae). In collaboration with wildlife photojournalist Tim Laman, this project has grown to become the most comprehensive collection of bird-of-paradise video footage in the world. The 39 known species provide a colorful lesson in evolutionary adaptation and sexual selection.

Florida Scrub-Jay

When molecular tools first showed that most birds mate with others besides their social mate, it came as a great surprise. Twenty years later, the discovery of a truly monogamous species is the surprise that begs explanation. The Florida Scrub-Jay is one such rare example. We are exploring whether this species deviates from monogamy in some parts of its range, which might help us to understand why genetic monogamy occurs in the first place.

Sexual Signals in Australian Fairywrens

Mike Webster, director of the Macaulay Library, studies the evolution of sexual signals in Australian fairywrens. The goal is to reveal how social and ecological environments interact to produce the plumage males display during breeding and how this indicates his health and condition. Other studies examine the role of song in fairywren mating behavior as well as the evolutionary forces that lead to divergence in sexual signals which may in turn spur the development of new species.

Citizen-Science Research

Understanding changes in the distribution and abundance of bird populations is difficult because birds are so mobile and most species are widely distributed. Citizen-science programs such as Project FeederWatch are invaluable for collecting consistent information across large areas over time. Citizen-science researchers use long-term data, cross-validation with other surveys, and modern statistical approaches to detect patterns, investigate mechanisms, and understand changes among bird populations.

Western Bluebirds

Researcher Janis Dickinson leads a long-term study of Western Bluebirds focusing on cooperative breedingsexual selection, and behavioral decision-making. Western Bluebirds are socially monogamous and essentially mate for life, but nearly half the time females lay eggs that are sired by males. Dickinson and her students look at territory quality, social environment, and the benefits of extra-pair mating, among other topics. The research is supported by grants from the National Science Foundation.

Origins of Biodiversity

pipettingMembers of our lab’s research community explore the biological diversity of birds and other organisms. We seek a better understanding of the processes that underlie the diversification and differentiation of populations and species, we generate improved reconstructions of their evolutionary histories, we conduct novel comparative and experimental tests of ecological and behavioral adaptations, and we inform scientific and public audiences about real-world issues relating to diversity and conservation genetics.

Visit the Fuller Evolutionary Biology Program website.

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