Student studies warblers: Sophomore biology major researches competitive mating in warblers

Posted by Hannah Sherman

For common yellowthroat warbler males, mating season can be very competitive. In the Northeast, a male's best asset is his yellow patch, or bib – the bigger the better.

Kate Littrell '13, a biology major at Skidmore, has been doing research on female warbler preference in males for a year now and plans to continue until she graduates.

Associate biology professor Dr. Corey Freeman-Gallant designed a study that looks at why the female birds have such picky taste in males. Previous studies have already shown that males with larger bibs sire more offspring, which supports the notion that females prefer these males.

To find out the reason behind this preference, Freeman-Gallant and Littrell are studying the offspring of males with large, yellow bibs and comparing them to the offspring of males with smaller bibs. They are trying to discover whether or not the desirable, large-bibbed males father young that are actually healthier than those fathered by the small-bibbed birds.

"The study we are doing now is one of the first studies to look at this: what do females get out of picking these sexier males? Intuitively, people think they will get better kids, but nobody has ever proven it." While Littrell is gaining valuable experience in research, she is also filling a gap in the scientific record.

Littrell started work on this project during her first-year. After taking a lecture class with Freeman-Gallant, she asked for special permission to be in a one-credit 275 research course almost exclusively populated by seniors. She got in.

Rather than creating her own project, as most students do, Littrell chose to join Freeman-Gallant in his research. When the semester was over, he asked if she wanted to continue the project as a summer intern. "I said I was very interested. I really wanted some field experience."

Last summer Freeman-Gallant's field assistants had to find yellowthroat warblers in the wild, catch them in nets, tag them and take blood and feather samples from them. This was not easy.

"Sometimes we had to charge through mud puddles and blackberry bushes and run like maniacs to scare them into the nets," Littrell said.

They also had to work countless hours in the fourth floor molecular ornithology lab in Dana Science Center, painstakingly preparing samples and running experiments.

"It can be miserable in the moment, but when you look back it's actually a lot of fun. You put all this work into it and then you get this awesome result. It's real science," Littrell said.

Many students at Skidmore do research over the summer, but few start as early as Littrell and are as committed to one project.

"A lot of people hop from project to project, but I really wanted to stay with something. Eventually this is going to get published. It's really exciting," Littrell said.

Now, Littrell is doing a three-credit independent study where she is continuing Freeman-Gallant's research. The team has weekly meetings, but Littrell is otherwise on her own.

After so long on the job, her professor trusts her to solve problems on her own. "Corey took the dean of Academic Advising job, so he is not really teaching anymore and he's not in the lab. I am really taking over what he would normally do," Littrell said.

Because of her dedication, Littrell will be listed as a co-author on her professor's project once the paper is published. She also anticipates having a stronger voice in designing research in the future.

Most biology students choose to work on their own projects during their first-year and sophomore years.

This strategy has some advantages: students get full control of designing and executing their own experiments.

However they do not get the benefits that long-term research provides and they do not get the experience of working on a professional project.

"My favorite part of college is my research. It is really rewarding. It is not like class where you are given work to do. Even in a lab, you are supervised heavily. In here, I am on my own and sometimes I have to figure things out for myself. I do not have the luxury of just walking over to my professor and asking, ‘Can you tell me what to do?' You really have to think on your feet," Littrell said.

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