Campus News

Nat Wheelwright Awarded NSF Grant

Story posted January 15, 2002

Nathaniel T. Wheelwright, professor of biology and director of the Bowdoin Scientific Station on Kent Island, has been awarded a National Science Foundation Grant to study the mating habits of the Savannah sparrow.

Wheelwright is the co-recipient of the $650,000 grant along with his former honors student Corey Freeman-Gallant '91, who is now a professor at Skidmore College.

The grant will support Wheelwright and Freeman-Gallant's investigation of the adaptive significance of how animals select mates, using the Savannah sparrows Wheelwright has studied on Kent Island for the past 14 years. Freeman-Gallant has been studying the sparrows for seven years, and studied for five years on Kent Island.

Many female birds mate promiscuously, and scientists hypothesize that multiple mating benefits females by allowing them to produce genetically diverse offspring, or take advantage of males with particularly “good genes.”

Wheelwright and Freeman-Gallant will study how a female Savannah sparrow chooses which male to pair with socially, and which males will sire her offspring.

Theories as to what influences the females' choice of a new mate include the males' size, song, plumage and health. However, a primary focus of the study will be how the genetic makeup of the males affects the females’ choice. The genetic makeup of the chosen males generally differs from the females'.

In particular Wheelwright and Freeman-Gallant hypothesize that female birds can recognize and avoid mating with close relatives, and that they favor males that are different from themselves in terms of genes dealing with immune function and the ability to fight parasites.

During the summers of 2002 and 2003, the research team will monitor nests for the occurrence of egg mortality and the survivorship of nestlings and fledglings. Blood samples of the birds will also be gathered, as the researchers study how genetic relatedness and male genotype affects females' mate choice and mating fidelity.

Wheelwright, who is a field ecologist, and Freeman-Gallant, an evolutionary ecologist who uses molecular techniques, will work with students from both Bowdoin and Skidmore. The NSF Grant will support student research and travel to Kent Island, and a lab technician position and the purchase of DNA sequencing equipment at Skidmore.

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