Graduate position(s) in food web ecology of rock pools, Vonesh lab, VCU

30077394151_2e2cb673c6_kThe Vonesh lab in the Department of Biology at Virginia Commonwealth Univesity ( invites applications from prospective
graduate students for Fall 2017 to collaborate on our NSF-funded project on rock pool food webs.  Changes in predator diversity via extinction and invasion are increasingly widespread, often with dramatic ecological and socio-economic consequences. Despite important advances, obstacles remain that limit our ability to predict and manage these consequences. This research focuses on river rock pool communities as a tractable model system and integrates natural history, ecological theory, field surveys, experiments, and new statistical tools to overcome these obstacles and advance our understanding of the relationship between predator biodiversity, prey populations, and ecosystem function and services.  Work will focus on river rock pools in Richmond, VA, and throughout the Southeastern USA. The juxtaposition of the James River rock pools, Virginia Commonwealth University, and metro-Richmond schools, provides an exceptional opportunity to integrate research and public education. Students and teachers from area high schools will collaborate with investigators on aspects of the research and in developing and broadly disseminating innovative educational resources (e.g., This project is a joint effort between myself (James Vonesh), Mike McCoy (, Jeremy Wojdak ( and Ben Bolker ( Graduate students will develop independent research projects that fit within the larger framework of the grant. There is opportunity to work on the project and get rolling prior to the fall semester (e.g., spring/summer technician employment). For more thoughts on my mentoring approach see

Prospective students with a Bachelor’s degree are encouaged to apply through the Biology Masters in Science program (, those with a Master’s degree should consider the VCU Integrative Life Sciences Ph.D. program ( Competitive stipends, tuition waivers, and support for field work are available. Successful MS degree applicants to the Vonesh lab typically have had a BS in biology (or related field), GPA >3.3, GREs >1200, prior research experience, a strong interest in developing quantitative skills, and an high level of self motivation. Candidates for the PhD program should have the above, plus a track record of research productivity (e.g., papers, manuscripts in review, and presentations). Interested persons should initially email a letter that summarizes their background, educational goals, and research interests, along with curriculum vitae (include GPA and GRE scores) with contact information for three references to Dr. James Vonesh (

Virginia Commonwealth University, located in Richmond, VA, is a larges public R1 university and RVAhas an active and diverse Ecology and Evolution faculty that are engaged in research around the world (, Richmond is an exciting place to live and work (, voted Outside Magazine’s “Best River Town in America” (, the third most tattooed city in America, according to the Today Show, and perhaps simply the “Best City in America” (

New course! South African Summits to Sea: Watershed-scale Perspective on the Human and Natural History of KwaZulu-Natal

2016-17 Winter Intersession Study Abroad: 27 Dec 2016 – 14 Jan 2017

Open to non-VCU students

The course focuses on major river watersheds of the KwaZulu-Natal Province of South Africa, specifically the Tugela, Buffalo (Mzinyathi), & Pongola river9ca34320c51d373707ebc988a3710dd3s, to explore the relationships between water resources, biodiversity and human history as we travel from the peaks of the Drakensburg Mountains to the marine protected areas of Kosi Bay.  This fast paced traveling course takes an outdoor adventure expedition-like approach, immersing students in the landscape. Although large distances will be traveled by vehicle, much of our exploration will be under “human power”, including long days of field work, hiking, rafting, and sit-on-top kayaking. Accommodations are primarily in tents, students are expected to play an active role in camp life.

Partner “AfricanChain-ladder1 Insights” will meet the course in Johannesburg. From there we travel to our first camp, Bashoto cultural village rest camp, in the Golden Gate National Park near Phuthaditjhaba, capital of the former apartheid era “homeland” QwaQwa of the Bashoto people. From here we will hike to the top of the Drakensburg escarpment via the “chain ladders” route and walk along the top of the Amphitheater to the headwaters of the the Tugela River and the where the river plunges over the escarpment at Tugela Falls – one of the highest in the world. What is the fate of a raindrop that falls on  this high plateau? What animal and plant life might it support on its journey? How has this flowing water shaped the course of human history? In what ways does modern society rely on this natural resources? These are some of the questions that originate from this place that frame our journey. With the stage now set, we spend the next week exploring the human and natural history of the upper Tugela River.

storage1First we visit sites on the Drakensberg Pumped Storage Scheme and discuss the benefits and challenges associated with interbasin water transfer systems. Once rain falling above Tugela Falls would have ended its journey to the sea in the Indian Ocean. Now, through a series of dams and shunts, water from the Tugela watershed may end up in watersheds that drain into the Atlantic on the opposite side of the continent. Here we will explore questions such as: How has society benefited from being able to control water in this manner in terms of irrigation and hydropower? What environmental challenges have been created by connecting watersheds that we not historically connected? What are the political consequences of inter-provincial water transfer in a relatively water poor country? How is climate expected to change in this region and how could such change impact these issues?

Tugela Gorge Trail 2Next we explore Royal Natal National Park. We will hike along the Tugela River in the amphitheater to the base of the falls, looking up hundreds of meters to where we stood a couple of days earlier. Here we will study the ecology of the upper Tugela focusing on macroinvertebrates as indicators of stream health, native fish communities of the Drakensburg escarpment, and the impacts of non-native fish introductions by Europeans. The introduction and management of trout  is a hot button issue in South Africa, trout support recreational fishing but also impact native stream biodiversity. This is a great issue with which to explore the multidimensional challenges associated with managing non-native species in freshwater systems.

Colenso,_KwaZulu-Natal_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_16462We then travel to downstream on the Tugela to the small town of Colenso  where we rendezvous with partner Zingela Safari and River Company. The Tugela River formed the frontier between Zulu, English and Boer cultures in eastern South Africa and has played a key role in the struggle for regional power. The Battle of Colenso of the second Boer War in 1899 provides an excellent example of this, where difficulty in crossing the river was instrumental in the British defeat. The evening at Colenso we will camp next to the river on a private farm, and  will also have the opportunity to meet the farmer and talk with him about the degree to which commercial agriculture in this regions relies irrigation water from the river and how interbasin water transfer schemes current and future might impact his livelihood. An emerging issue is the possibility of a large coal-fired power plant in the area, and we will discuss the possible trade-offs associated with such development as well.

Itin_RiverRockMtn_Day-2-White-water-raft-Upper-Tugela-River-The next two days are spent traveling down the Tugela River gorge to Zingela Game Reserve by raft, camping along the riverside. This section involves exciting class III-IV whitewater and an opportunity to continue our study of the river’s ecology and water quality guided by Dr. Peter Calverley who grew up at Zingela and went on to get his PhD in Zoology from VCU’s partner University, UKZN. Zingela is a private game reserve, and in addition to runningP1190708 a rafting company, the Calverley family manage their land for wildlife, and giraffes, kudu and other antelope are abundant. While at Zingela we can see the legacy of past land use, from ancient iron smelting sites to impacts of past over-farming and discuss how the Calverley’s families efforts to restore riparian habitats.

At this point in the trip we leave the Tugela watershed traveling deeper into Zululand to connect to other rivers on our journey to the sea.  En route we will visit Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift Battlefield Parks. Battle of Isandlwana in 1879 was the first major encounter in the A(c) National Army Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundationnglo–Zulu War between the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom.  The British Army suffered its worst defeat against an indigenous army armed with basic weaponry. The subsequent battle at Rorke’s Drift, in which a small garrison of British  troops successfully defended the mission against a much larger Zulu force is one of the most famous in British military history. One of the challenges that faced the British soldiers retreating to Rorke’s Drift from Isandlwana was the Buffalo River, a tributary of the Tugela, which was then in flood. Many soldiers and horses were lost trying to make this crossing.  Following the  “Fugitive’s trail” we will retrace the steps of the fleeing British from Isandlwana to Rorke’s Drift.

8249205We next spend three days at African Insight’s base at Somkhanda Game Reserve focusing on the terrestrial biome surrounding these rivers. When the Gumbi Tribe won a successful land claim over a substantial tract of prime Zululand bushveld, the result was the consolidation of a number of privately owned game and hunting ranches into a 12,000ha continuous Somkhanda Game Reserve. Currently the Reserve has white and black rhino, leopard, hyena, African wild dog and a comprehensive range of all the common ungulates and smaller predators that historically occurred in this region. African Insights has developed a curriculum and has trained staff/guides to take advantage of this unique situation affords the opportunity for students to track animals in their natural surroundings using radio tracking telemetry, learn various ecological and conservation principles and techniques and to be involved in variety of wildlife and vegetation monitoring programs. Students will rotate daily between different projects P1200436accompanied by experienced facilitators on each project. Generally projects include theoretical discussion,  practical field data collection, data-management or specimens are prepared for preservation, and and data analysis. All research and monitoring contributes to the Reserve’s baseline data collection as well as assist ongoing conservation and biodiversity management of the Reserve.

Jozini DamArmed with more intimate knowledge of terrestrial wildlife and flora our journey returns to the river, now the Pongola River. This Pongola has also been dammed, but for a different motivation than the Tugela and perhaps with different consequences for the ecology of the river downstream of the dam.  Launch tours of the reservoir formed by the dam usually offers opportunities of seeing a wide variety of water birds, crocodile, hippo and perhaps elephant. During which there will be a discussion on the ecology of Jozini Dam and the consequential effects of damming a major river and the environmental, economic and social impacts. After the launch cruise , we  transfer to Zingela/Pongola River Company’s put-in location on the river downstream from thepongola-river-company1 dam and spend a couple of hours kayaking to get to their camp situated on the river banks. The next day we continue paddling down river and sleep along its banks. During both days we revisit issues and sampling conducted along the Tugela and compare with our findings on the Pongola.

Leaving the Pongola River behind, the group meets up African Insight again for a short transfer to Tembe Elephant Park, home to the last and largest free roaming elephants in South Africa, the other “Big Five” – lions, leopards, rhinoceros, Cape buffalo, the suni – Africa’s sP1190752mallest antelope, and >300 species of birds. Here we transfer to open safari vehicles and head through the park to our overnight accommodations. We stay in the park for two nights and spend the  days in  exploring  aspects of the unique Sand Forest ecosystem, ecology and biology of the various wildlife see encounter.

Kosi-Bay_aerialFinally, we reach the freshwater lagoons and the sea at Kosi Bay. Kosi Bay is situated in the far North Eastern corner of KwaZulu-Natal – on the border between South Africa and Mozambique. It forms part of the Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park – the first natural World Heritage Site in South Africa to be accorded this distinction. Kosi Bay epitomizes the incredible splendor of untouched Africa at its most pristine, as are its people, resources, ecology and culture. Kosi Bay system comprises 4 lakes ranging  saline that feed into the ocean. Ancient fishing kraals (traps) erected from local materials and tendered by the resourceful Tonga people still exist in the protected area. Kosi Bay has been described as9581941_orig “a wonderful aquarium and the most gorgeous aviary.” The crystal clear, warm water offers tranquil swimming and snorkeling on coral reefs. The program for this section will be largely determined by the tides, but will include: presentations on the ecology of the Kosi lakes and estuarine system and on the history and social economic factors influencing this region ; a hike to the mouth and visit to the traditional fish traps with a local fisherman; snorkeling; and a night walk on the beach at low tide to try and see leatherback sea turtles, the largest of the sea turtles, nesting.

The last day African Insights transports us back to Johannesburg to connect with an evening flight home (flight must be after 19h00).

Course details

Primary instructor: James Vonesh

Credits: 3

Pre-trip orientation: Monday 12 Dec 2016 (if off campus can SKYPE in)

Class size: up to 18

Eligibility? This program is open to all students, regardless of major, who have at least a 2.0 GPA. Students who apply to the program will be interviewed (in person or via Skype) by the program director prior to approval. An academic letter of reference will be required.

This program *is* open to non-VCU students.

Program cost: $2,400 + airfare + tuition

The program fee is $2,400 and includes the following:

  • Pick-up and drop-off at the O.R. Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg, South Africa
  • All accommodation (mostly tented camps)
  • All meals (but 1)
  • All transport (e.g., vehicle, raft and canoe equipment rental, boat launch)
  • All South African guides and guest lectures
  • On-site Program Director support
  • Pre-departure orientation
  • International Student Identity Card
  • VCU administrative fees
  • Application deposit

The following are not included in the program fee. Students are responsible for:

  • Airfare
  • VCU tuition and fees (credits count toward spring semester)
  • Passport application or renewal fee, if applicable
  • Personal discretionary spending
  • Personal equipment

Airfare: Estimated $1200

Participants will book their own flights. Return flights from Washington, DC to Johannesburg, South Africa for December 2016 January 2017 cost an estimated $1,000 – 1,500 (Based on price search in May 2016).

Interested or Questions? Email

Also keep an eye out for the posting at VCU GLOBAL Education

Making the case for science in the halls of government

2016-04-23By Julie Charbonnier, VCU ILS PhD candidate, Fulbright and NSF Fellow

I had the opportunity to participate in the MakingOurCASE workshop –  a three-day event to learn about Congress, the federal budget and science communication in Washington DC. The workshop was organized by AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) and students from thirty universities nationwide attended. It was great to meet and network with other graduate students passionate about science policy.

A large portion of the workshop was spent on understanding the Appropriations process- a grueling 4 phase process that can take up to two years to complete and involves federal agencies, the President and both houses of Congress. For one of the exercises, we pretended to be an Appropriations committee making hard decisions about how to allocate money. Because every dollar in the budget has multiple claimants, and each representative of Congress has his own constituents to keep in mind, the process is difficult and complex. Check out the free course for AAAS members on the federal budget here.

Less than 5% of Congress has any background in science or engineering! Most members of Congress do not have solid grasp on the challenges that researchers face. That’s why it’s important for students and scientists to engage with their representatives, tell their stories and explain why funding for science matters. Federal funding for research does not just fund lab supplies- it funds training, education and outreach – but politicians don’t know that unless scientists advocate their case. We met Dr. Bill Foster (Democrat- Illinois), the lone remaining PhD in Congress who explained that if we don’t make our case for science, no one will. Funding for science has been steadily decreasing ever since the end of the space race.

We also discussed how funding for curiosity-based science is essential. However, as scientists we must communicate our objectives and results with the public. NSF has launched a program to increase transparency and create materials for the public. Explaining to the public why science matters is the best way to fight back against the  “war on science”.

We also heard from congressional staffers and staff at NSF and the Office of Science and Technology policy. Nearly 22 agencies across the government deal with science and technology which means there are numerous opportunities for scientists to get involved at the federal level. For more information on the workshop, including powerpoints of the lectures, go to .

Are you a student at VCU interested in science policy? Please feel free to contact me at and follow me on Twitter @modernecologist.


Ecology exam – Just a little bit different…

So just gave my Community Ecology section final to the second year Bot/Zoo students at Stellies. It was an interesting process. Recall this is a required course and has about 80 students. It is team taught by four faculty – each covering a specific section of 10 – 12 lectures. I had to prepare the test about a month in advance. First, the test was vetted – i.e., it was passed to another faculty member outside the course to review and evaluate. I needed to respond to these suggestions in developing the final version. Then, because of Stellenbosch’s dual language policy, the test had to be translated into Afrikaans. This was done by one of the graduate student TAs, I think. The test itself was entirely essay questions which were written down by the students in little blue test booklets (although I am told they come in a variety of colors). Now just need to grade them!

Logan awarded Animal Behavior Society research grant!

Who rakes leaves in the forest? Who burning leaves in spring? Stay tuned to Logan's research to find out!

Who rakes leaves in the forest? Who burns leaves in spring? Stay tuned to Logan’s research to find out!

A big congratulations to Vonesh lab graduate student Logan McDonald who has been awarded a student research grant from the Animal Behavior Society for her thesis research examining multi-scale habitat selection in frogs in response to fire. Logan is co-supervised by Dr. Kristine Grayson-Dattelbum at University of Richmond and works in collaboration with the natural resources & biology team out at Fort A. P. Hill. Way to go!

Julie off to Capitol Hill for AAAS workshop

indexCongrats to Julie Charbonnier! She has been selected to be one of a handful of VCU  graduate students to travel to Washington, DC in April to participate  in a workshop sponsored by Making our Case (Catalyzing Advocacy for Science and Engineering) and AAAS to learn about science policy and advocacy. The workshop includes sessions on the Federal Budget Process, negotiating an Appropriations Bill, and learning about how Congressional Committees operate. She will report back on what she learns in a future blog post. Go Julie!

UKZN-Pietermaritzburg Life Sciences

Last week I had the chance to visit the University of KwaZulu-Natal- Pietermaritzburg campus to give a seminar and also to introduce their faculty to VCU Biology & Life Sciences.

UKZN departmental seminar

UKZN departmental seminar

UKZN is  the the only established international partner in all of Africa and there are active, ongoing collaborations between a number of VCU-UKZN academic units, most notably in Social Behavioral Health, Psychology, and Music. However,  interaction between the VCU Biology and UKZN Life Sciences has been pretty limited this far.  So one goal for this visit is to introduce VCU Biology & Life sciences to them – particularly in the areas of organismal biology, ecology, evolutionary biology, conservation and environmental and ecosystem sciences – and to find out more about them, to see if there is some common ground to build upon.

It is hard to overstate the biological and cultural diversity of this area. Within a half days drive of this campus you have some of the highest peaks in Africa with a unique afromontane flora and fauna,  “Big 5” game parks, extensive world heritage coastal  freshwater wetland and barrier island reserves, and diverse Indian Ocean marine reserves. Connecting the mountains and the coast are a number of major rivers, including the Tugela  – more on that in my next posting. Culturally it is equally diverse (major African, European, Indian influences), just a stones through from the Durban (700,000+ people), where their are other campuses and an international airport.

So last Wednesday I caught the six A.M. flight out of Cape Town on the Atlantic coast and arrived in Durban on the Indian Ocean by eight. The drive out to Pietermaritzburg from King Shaka Intl. Airport took about an hour and a half. I was hosted by Prof. Colleen Downs and enjoyed meeting and chatting with a number of their faculty during the morning tea break soon after I arrived. During the day I visited their on campus botanical gardens, herbarium, and animal research facilities. During my seminar I first talked about ecological and evolutionary research at VCU before giving a short research talk. Most of their faculty were unaware of any connection between our universities (as were VCUs, I suspect). In the evening Colleen hosted a small dinner party which gave me further opportunity to get to know some of their faculty.

The next morning I went on a field trip with some of the undergraduate and graduate student to a nearby raptor rehab center and heard about their research projects as we walked around checking out the birds of prey.


Workshop focused on understanding predator invasions

Left to right, Back row(ish): Cory Thorp, Jaimie Dick, Pietro Landi, Danny Barrios-O'Neill, Tony Ricciardi, Ben Toscano, Res Altwegg, John Measey. Middle(ish): Wolf Christian-Saul, Susana Clusella-Trullas, James Vonesh, Jonathan Jeschke, Katie Laskowski, Savannah, Sabrina Kumschik, Michael Somers, Bottom: Mike McCoy, Ana Nunes, Michelle Jackson, Tammy Robinson, Mhairi Alexander. Not in photo: Stefan Linzmaier, Ryan Wasserman, Cang Hui

Left to right, Back row(ish): Cory Thorp, Jaimie Dick, Pietro Landi, Danny Barrios-O’Neill, Tony Ricciardi, Ben Toscano, Res Altwegg, John Measey. Middle(ish): Wolf Christian-Saul, Susana Clusella-Trullas, James Vonesh, Jonathan Jeschke, Katie Laskowski, Savannah, Sabrina Kumschik, Michael Somers, Bottom: Mike McCoy, Ana Nunes, Michelle Jackson, Tammy Robinson, Mhairi Alexander. Not in photo: Stefan Linzmaier, Ryan Wasserman, Cang Hui

As part of the Center for Invasion Biology end of the year research pow-wow, the CIB also sponsored a couple of workshop. I helped organized one of these, along with colleagues/friends John Measey (CIB), Mhairi Alexander (CIB/University of the West of Scotland), and Mike McCoy (East Carolina University) focused on the recent trend of comparing functional responses of native and introduced consumers to gain insights into the potential impacts of invasive species. The idea for a workshop emerged when we realized that there would be already a number of scientists coming to the CIB annual meeting who have expertise & interest in predator-prey ecology and developing functional response models for either applied or basic ecology motivations – and with CIB funding we were able to bring in a few additional scientists that we were keen to bring into the discussion.

In the end we had 25 participants from 5 countries (South Africa, USA, Ireland, Scotland, Germany) representing a mix of applied and basic interests. Presentations focused on reviewing work to day and an evaluation of current methodology, evolutionary and behavioral ecology as relates to predator-prey interactions, and scaling up functional response experiments to populations and communities. We had 12 presentations over 2 days with lots of time of discussion and brainstorming the next steps.

Participants included members and alums from Jaimie Dick’s group from Queens University in Belfast including co-organizer Mhairi and Danny Barrios-O’Neill. We also had a crew from the Leibniz Institute for Freshwater Research near Berlin including  Jonathan Jeschke, post docs Wolf Christian Saul, and Katie Laskowski, and PhD student Stefan Linzmaier. From the USA we had post doc Ben Toscano from Volker Rudolf’s lab at Rice University in Houston, in addition to myself and Mike. About half of the participants were CIB team researchers down for the annual research meeting and interested in learning more about how functional responses have becoming increasingly applied to questions of invasion biology.

FR Invasions paper bannerThe basic thesis of the “comparative functional response approach” in invasion biology is that understanding how an invading consumer’s (or potentially invading consumer) feeding rate changes with prey availability compared with functional similar native “comparator”  species will provide insight into the likelihood that the non-native will have a large impact on native prey. Jaimie Dick’s lab developed and has championed the approach and they have published a bunch of well cited papers on the topic in the last few years. So it was great to have Jaimie give the opening plenary to share with us how it all got started and where he sees it going. Jaimie was followed by experimental and analysis talks by Mhairi and Danny introducing how people have been doing these kinds of studies. This was especially appreciated by the functional response “neophytes” in the audience, who stated that a methods paper providing a road map for these kinds of experiments would be a big help for them.

Our second session focused mostly on behavior as it pertains to predator feeding ecology and was led by Jeschke’s group. Jonathan reviewed some of his past work on the predation cycle and how it relates to his Steady State functional response model. This is a modified mechanistic model for predator feeding rates that more explicitly addresses the behavioral and physiological components of the predator-prey interaction. As such, it provide a more mechanistic perspective on the functional response versus the more curve-fitting phenomenological approach often applied. It was great to have Jeschke unpack his research for us and I think his more mechanistic approach has broad value for understanding predator-prey interactions. Other themes from this session highlighted how variation in individual consumer behavior might have important implications for the shape of the functional response and Wolf presented the findings from his recent paper on Eco-evolutionary experience in novel species interactions.

We wrapped the day with more discussion over dinner at the University Botanical Gardens.P1290649

Our second day focused on scaling up functional response experiments to population and community-levels. Part of the attraction of functional response experiments for invasion biologists (and in general) are that they are often fairly straightforward to set up and run over short time scale. Indeed, most empirical studies are run over a period of a few hours to few days. The hope is that these short experiments can provide some insight into long-term processes, e.g., how much will an invader impact/depress prey populations. However, short term studies conducted in relatively small venues don’t always scale up intuitively. Both Res Altwegg (UCT, Statistics) and I focused our presentations on using classical ecological theory to try to gain insight into how changes in functional response parameters scale up to influence prey population dynamics and the long term stability of predator-prey interactions. Mike McCoy followed up with an examination of how non-linearity in size-dependent predation and prey growth can have dramatic implications for predator impacts and needs to be considered and ideally integrated into functional response experiments.

Mike’s talk also provided a nice segue to thinking about how to extend current work with functional responses in invasion biology to food webs with multiple consumers and/or prey. He explained the findings of his 2012 Ecology Letters paper Emergent effects of multiple predators on prey survival: the importance of depletion and the functional response which highlights how much of what we currently *think* we know about how predator effects combine to affect survival of a shared prey may be due to biases in our null models and provides tools for addressing these biases. From there he showed how this framework can be extended to more diverse food web scenarios. This set the stage for Ben Toscano  and Ryan Wasserman to tell us about their empirical work with functional responses and how they are modified by behavior, parasites and other consumers. Much of the discussion following these talks focused on how to address trait-mediated interactions in simple food webs.

We wrapped the workshop with some small group worked focused on developing a couple of synthetic papers from the workshop and developing a common database for archiving past and future experimental work to facilitate more robust meta-analyses.

McCoy visits the Cape

Mike and James on Lion's Head

Mike McCoy and James Vonesh on Lion’s Head. Sea Point, Table Bay, and Robbin Island in background.

Very excited to have old lab mate, former post doc, East Carolina University professor, and good friend Dr. Mike McCoy visiting the Cape through late November as a Center for Invasion Biology fellow. Mike is helping organize our up coming “Functional Responses and a Tool for Invasion Biology” workshop, collaborating on several projects, and sampling some of the Cape fine hiking. For more on Mike check out his lab webpage.

Reflections on graduate research, the life aquatic, leggy frogs & Calaveras contenders

By Julie Charbonnier, PhD candidate

My Master’s thesis, “Consequences of life history switch point plasticity for juvenile morphology and locomotion in tField experimenthe Túngara frog” has just been published in PeerJ! In this paper we show how pond drying and resource availability differently influence relative limb length and jumping in new metamorphs and then compare our findings with past work through meta-analysis. Its open source, so freely available  – I hope you get a chance to read it!

I arrived in Gamboa, a small town nestled between the Panama Canal and rainforest, in the summer of 2011, ready to complete a Master’s project. While there, I observed Túngara frog tadpoles pretty much everywhere: in small ditches, puddles, and shallow ponds.

Tungara frogs are found throughout Central and South America. They have an unmistakable call that replicate an 1980’s  video game and, as I observed, lay their foam nests in just about anything that holds water. Why choose such short lived habitats? I wondered whether Túngara tadpoles would have enouTungara metamorphgh time to successfully complete development in these temporary habitats. Additionally, if these tadpoles did somehow manage to escape the drying pond, would there be any negative consequences to their size and morphology? In turn, how might these changes in body size influence their jumping performance?

Designing experiments to answer these questions was the most exciting part of the process. Dr. Karen Warkentin, Dr. Justin Touchon, and Dr. Mike McCoy assisted me in formulating ideas and developing questions and for that I am extremely grateful. In hindsight, the field and laboratory work was the easy part. The difficult part came later while interpreting the data, figuring out what the story was, and incorporating my work within the literature. My “a-ha” moments came from discussions with my advisor and committee members, and countless others who gave me feedback on the manuscript. I particularly want to thank Dr. Ivan Gomez Mestre, Dr. Julie Zinnert, Dr. Kristine Grayson, and Dr. Joseph Battistelli  who kept me motivated by providing me with advice during the writing process. Writing can be a challenging process and it is nice to be reminded that scientists do not act in isolation, and we all need peer feedback in order to be a successful.

Society may envision the lonely scientist sitting behind his or her desk or lab bench, but I believe forward progress is driven by our colleagues and mentors. Most importantly, I am very grateful to my advisor, Dr. James Vonesh, who kept me motivated to submit this paper, continually offering encouragement and supporting me throughout the process.