I write blog posts for non-scientists on a variety of topics for the UNM BioBlog. Several of my blogs are being used by teachers in high school science classrooms in Albuquerque.

A female Torrent Duck and her three juvenile offspring in a tributary of the Río Apurímac in the Peruvian Andes. Photo by Natalie Wright.

A female Torrent Duck and her three juvenile offspring in a tributary of the Río Apurímac in the Peruvian Andes. Photo by Natalie Wright.

Taunted by torrent ducks

I am in chest-deep water and braced against the vertical face of a rock. My hands are grasping the ends of a broken aluminum pole linked to a 3-by-12-meter net. If I let go the rushing Andean river will carry away the pole and net within seconds. The net, impossible to replace from here in Peru, has filled with algae, which weighed it down. It was pure luck that I was wading out to the pole as it broke, and even more luck that I managed to catch the pole as it flew past me on its way downstream. My two field partners, an American graduate student, Andrea, and a Peruvian biologist assisting us, Luis, are nowhere to be seen. Downstream, one of the Torrent Ducks (Merganetta armata) we are trying to catch taunts me, swimming easily through the water, hopping onto a rock, and preening as if it knows my nets and I are currently of no concern. Read more...

"Discovery Trail" at Asa Wright Nature Centre, Trinidad. Photo by Natalie Wright.

"Discovery Trail" at Asa Wright Nature Centre, Trinidad. Photo by Natalie Wright.

My rainforest commute

I awake just before dawn to the sound of water gurgling in a brook.  The local oropendolas, large blackbirds that build hanging nests in colonies throughout the Neotropical lowlands, are at it again: hanging upside-down as they sing in the tree just above our tents.  I pull on muddy clothes and tall rubber boots, and then trudge out of my tent to the camp kitchen, where Ashley, an undergraduate working with me through UNM's UNO program, joins me.  We stuff the day's supplies into our packs, grab binoculars and walking sticks, and sleepily begin our daily commute in the Peruvian rainforest. Read more...

A Cape May Warbler fuels up for spring migration in the Bahamas. Photo by Natalie Wright.

A Cape May Warbler fuels up for spring migration in the Bahamas. Photo by Natalie Wright.

The sex lives of birds

Courtship in songbirds is trashy, like a reality television show. Each male is trying to gain the greatest reproductive advantage he can, either by mating with as many females as possible and/or by impressing the highest-quality female(s). Each female is also trying to maximize her reproduction, but her desires often conflict with those of the males. She wants the highest quality males to sire her young, but needs a loyal male who will help her successfully raise her offspring. Often, males who have "better genes" - are better at territory defense, better singers, or have prettier feathers - are lousy parents who spend all their time singing or dallying with the girl next door rather than feeding their offspring. So what's a lady bird to do? She mates with her partner, the male with whom she is raising offspring, who is usually the father of over half the offspring in their nest. She also mates with other males occupying nearby territories, who end up fathering some of the young in her nest - kids her partner helps raise. Read more...

Useless? On the importance of teaching ecology and evolution

"BIOL 203: Evolution and Ecology was the most useless class I've taken."  When one of the students in our class said this a couple weeks ago, the room exploded in discussion.  It seemed all the undergraduates agreed, and all the grad students were upset (because we strongly disagree).  This sentiment seems to be shared even among our best biology undergraduate students, particularly those interested in biomedical fields.  I believe that the universality of this view means that we as educators have failed at one of our more important jobs.  We should be teaching our students the importance and relevance of evolution and ecology hand-in-hand with their major principles.  We have no one to blame for this widespread opinion of our irrelevance but ourselves. Read more...

Domestic cats and wildlife

Unleashing domestic cats upon the world is one of the single most destructive things modern humans have done to wildlife. Native North American bird populations are declining dramatically, and have been for some time. Bird lovers and conservationists are understandably worried. Much decline in many species comes from habitat loss, but scientists really don't know the relative importance of habitat loss vs. human-caused mortality in the population declines of most species. We are learning, however, that one of the biggest, if not the worst, sources of human-caused mortality in native birds is domestic cats. Loss et al. (2013) estimate that domestic cats (both pets allowed outdoors and feral cats) kill somewhere between 1.4 and 3.7 billion birds each year in the continental U.S. alone. These estimates are far greater than any previous estimate of other human-caused bird deaths, including flying into windows, being hit by cars, or being poisoned by pesticides. Native species make up most of the deaths, with only 33% of cat-killed-birds being non-native. And these numbers are large, even when considered in terms of the population sizes of birds: "For all North American land birds, the group of species most susceptible to mainland cat predation, existing estimates range from 10–20 billion individuals in North America" (Loss et al. 2013). That is, cats in the continental U.S. kill somewhere between 7% and 37% of the population of land birds in North America. Read more...

I am an imposter

I imagine my sixth grade teacher, who considered me a mediocre student, got a good laugh from my essay on "What I want to be when I grow up."  I wanted to be a biologist who studied endangered species in the wild, because the only way to save a species is to know more about them.  (I had recently seen a documentary on field biologists studying pandas, and was likely parroting the program).  At the time, I had grand plans of spending northern summers in "the rainforest" (wherever that was) and winters in Antarctica.  Exactly which endangered species I would save was unclear.

As the years went by, I kept hearing how hard it is to get a job as a wildlife biologist, and I began to believe my dream to be impossible.  I also began to believe that the reason my goal was unlikely was not because it was unachievable, but because I was not smart or hardworking enough.  By chance, as an undergraduate I got a job doing basic labwork in a museum bird collection at my school, after the first chosen applicant fell through.  The professor I worked for led an archaeology and zoology field course to Tobago (an island off the coast of Venezuela) and I signed up.  I loved every second of this first experience doing real research.  Towards the end of the field course, my professor asked me if I would like to do a master's degree with him, studying the birds of Trinidad and Tobago.  I could not believe he thought I was good enough for graduate school.  I could not believe he wanted to take me on as his student.  But it was true.

When I started graduate school, I felt terrified.  Everyone in my cohort was much smarter, more experienced, and more qualified that I was.  Many had master's degrees, most had years of experience working in labs or the field, and several had prestigious NSF fellowships.  Unlike the other students, I had only gotten in because my advisor liked me and saw how hard I worked in the field; I did not have the typical qualifications.  The brilliant insights my fellow students made amazed me, and I was afraid of what would happen when they caught on to the fact that I was not making such intelligent contributions to the class discussion. Read more...

Subconscious bias

When my mother was a teenager, her family moved from Titusville, FL, home of the space program, where public schools have for decades provided excellent science education, to Pensacola, FL, often called the "Redneck Riviera." She was in for a nasty surprise. She was told that she was not allowed to take ninth grade earth-space science because she was a girl. Girls had to take home economics instead; only boys needed science, and only girls needed home economics. The science-loving daughter of a rocket scientist, she did not back down. In the end, a compromise was reached: she took home economics with all the other girls, but she could give up her elective to be the only girl in the ninth-grade science classroom. (Mom is now a biology professor and the Science Department Chair at a community college.) Read more...