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Biologist use Murdock grants to study birds, fish

July 23, 2009

Biology professors win coveted Murdock grants

Turning over barnacle-encrusted rocks, one by one, craning your neck to catch a glimpse of a bird or sloshing through a muddy tributary might not seem like hard core scientific endeavors. But think again. It’s research such as this that gleaned three assistant professors of biology – Michael Behrens, Julie Smith and Jacob Egge – grants totaling more than $120,000. The support, provided by the Vancouver, Wash. based M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust will fund three student-faculty research projects.

Each year, the trust funds dozens of projects that will enhance the quality of life in the Pacific Northwest by providing grants and enrichment programs to organizations seeking to strengthen the region’s educational, spiritual, and cultural base in creative and sustainable ways. In 2009, the trust funded 43 scientific projects with $2.9 million in grants.

“The foundation feels it’s important to support scientific exploration of the natural world, and this grants, including the grants to Pacific Lutheran University, are an important part of that work,” said Dana Miller, senior program director for the Murdock Trust.

The grants to PLU will fund two years of student-faculty research looking into the ecology of the Pacific Northwest, as well as species divergence in several Mississippi River tributaries. Each professor will work with four students (two each summer) over the next two years to both collect and analyze data.

For Behrens, the grant means he will continue his work into researching prickleback fishes indigenous to the Olympic peninsula. Behrens will study of the digestive physiology of tidepool fishes, and how temperature and diet affect the growth in the species. This will further the research into why some areas support fish that are herbivores, while other parts of the globe support fish that are basically carnivores and omnivores.

It’s been recognized since the early 1960s that there are lots of herbivores in the tropics, but very few at higher latitudes,” he said.

“But it’s not been addressed on why this might be.”

This research may eventually have links to climate change, and why or how one species might survive, while others may not, Behrens noted.

Specifically, Behrens’ team will be looking at an eel-like fish known as the rock prickleback and the black prickleback.

While Behrens will be on the beach, Egge will be taking his crew up the Mississippi River into a series of embayments or streams that drain into it. Egge’s crew will see if the Mississippi acts as a natural barrier that isolates species along the river.

Egge will be studying the DNA of different fish – two species of catfish and one minnow – gathered along the Mississippi this June.

“If you’re in stream A, and you have all close relatives in stream A, but have some relatives also in stream B, it indicates your ancestors were able to move around from stream to stream,” he said.

The team will also be looking at how long a species of fish might have been in a given stream. For example, some fish populations may have started developing 5 million years ago, when glaciations isolated the area, he said.

As the only  professor who will have her feet firmly planted on dry land, and neck craned into the hair,  Julie Smith will be researching red crossbills, which have developed a unique ability to pry seeds out of different type of pine cones through their moniker – a bill that crosses at the end.

Smith is interested if different types of crossbills – those that may get seeds from the ponderosa pine and those from the western hemlock – breed with each other. There is evidence they do not.

She’s also interested in what exactly contributes to their breeding isolation. Do they have different calls? Breeding areas? Seasonal cycles? So this first year, Smith’s team will be driving around Oregon and Washington with recording equipment, trying to find populations of crossbills.

“I’ve heard about a good Douglas Fir crop in the lower Puget Sound area,” she mused.

She’s probably going to check that out first, microphone in hand.