ISU students, professors research sparrows in Adirondacks

November 1 2007

Holly Hughes cupped a baby sparrow in her hand within hours of arriving in the Adirondack Mountains.

"I love his little fuzz," she said of the 5-day-old nestling. ''It's so cute."

The Indiana State University student from West Terre Haute was in upstate New York at the Cranberry Lake Biological Station as part of an on-going 20-year research project run by Elaina Tuttle, an ISU associate professor of life sciences, and Rusty Gonser, an ISU assistant professor of life sciences.

When Tuttle offered Hughes the opportunity to spend the summer researching white-throated sparrows, the junior life sciences major decided to take it.

"I just couldn't think of a better way to spend my summer than doing something that not only would be fun, but that's going to help me in the future," she said.

Hughes spent weeks this summer along with other students hiking through the forest to observe the sparrows and find their nests. After locating nests, the baby birds would be measured before having their blood drawn and bands placed on their legs. Other times, researchers and students used nets to catch adult birds for banding so they could be studied.

Such outside of the classroom learning, Tuttle, Gonser and the students said, is an integral part of education.

"Science is really hands-on things and you can't learn science by just sitting and reading a book. You have to be immersed in it," said Tuttle, named an ISU Promising Scholar - a program funded by a gift from the Lilly Endowment - in recognition of her commitment to meaningful research and student learning. "It's incredibly important for an undergraduate who thinks that they want to be a scientist to actually get experience doing these things and getting their hands dirty."

Even for those who decide field research is not a career for them, Tuttle said it is something that will remain with them.

"Hopefully they can critically look at things and they're not afraid to go and get dirty whether it be in any aspect of their life, not necessarily in research or science or in the field," she said. "They're a bit bolder in their life."

Marisa Korody of Santa Clarita, Calif., found that a summer of research changed her life.

She had graduated from a college in California when a professor suggested she apply for a position with Tuttle. She went on to earn her master’s degree from Indiana State and is now working on her doctorate at ISU while studying how the sex ratio among the sparrows affects the differences in nestling behavior.

"I had no idea I wanted to work in the field or the lab until I started volunteering in the lab and I came up here," said Korody, who has worked with the sparrows for five years. "Now I absolutely love it. I can't imagine doing anything else. It definitely opens doors and teaches you to see what you want to do."

Field research could have helped her as a high school student, according to Amanda Jamison, of Syracuse, N.Y., who is studying the effect parasites have on white-throated sparrows' reproduction and life span as she works on her master's degree in life sciences at ISU.

"It definitely gets them in touch with themselves and what they want, and probably what's even best for them -- if they like to work with wildlife or this type of biological research," she said about the weeks observing sparrows. "This is an absolutely wonderful experience to have."

The sparrow research project is Cranberry Lake's longest-running, continuous research project and it began with Tuttle. She first journeyed to the lake as a graduate student working on her thesis project about sparrows and their mating systems. That research has now moved into the different sparrow genotypes.

"A lot of things contribute to (diversity)," she said. "Not only do genes contribute to that, but the environment contributes to that in a strong way. There are a lot of things going on with selection. In order to be able to make advances in not only human biology, but in environmental biology and in evolutionary biology, we need to understand these things. I think that the white throated sparrow not only helps us explain this diversity in nature, but explain diversity in particular things like why is there behavioral diversity' Why is there physiological diversity' Why is there diversity in immune response'"

Gonser, who began by researching sparrows' parental care, said the growth in the number of people working on the research has also been a boon to the amount of data collected. When Tuttle started, she and two other students would gather data from about 25 nests. Now, with about 10 people working the site, they are able to collect data from up to 80 nests.

"We're trying to get closer to catching all of the birds from the territory, knowing everyone and just trying to collect every piece of information we can," Gonser said.

Tuttle and Gonser involve the students in almost all aspects of obtaining that information from setting up nets to capturing adult birds to doing DNA analysis in the lab to using a global positioning system. After Hughes arrived late the night before, she woke early to go into the field.

"You get dumped in, you get dragged along and you go," Gonser said about Hughes' day. "When she leaves here, she's going to have a good idea of how to manage a research project and collect all of that and she's probably got a good idea after the first day."

Holding the nestling in her hand was an experience Hughes said she could only get in the research field.

"It was like holding your future in your hands, in a way, because this might be what I'm going to do for the rest of my life. It was life-altering in a way," she said.

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Contact: Elaina Tuttle, associate professor of life sciences, at 812-237-8442 or at etuttle2@isugw.indstate.edu

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, assistant director of media relations, Indiana State University, (812) 237-7972 or jsicking@isugw.indstate.edu

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Story Highlights

Indiana State University students were in upstate New York at the Cranberry Lake Biological Station as part of an on-going 20-year research project run by Elaina Tuttle, an ISU associate professor of life sciences, and Rusty Gonser, an ISU assistant professor of life sciences.

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