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Bee neuroplasticity: how does sociality influence neuroplasticity and drive patterns in brain investment

Graduate Student Project

Bee neuroplasticity: how does sociality influence neuroplasticity and drive patterns in brain investment

In social insects, changes in behavior are accompanied by changes in the brain. This neuroplasticity may be associate with experience and/or age. The ability to adjust neural investment with experience and in anticipation of age-related shifts in behavior is important for facilitating colony life. Did the evolution of experience- and age-based neuroplasticity preceded or follow evolutionary origins of sociality? To address this question, we are using confocal microscopy to characterized neuroanatomical changes associated with age and experience (both foraging and social interactions) in solitary alkali bees. We are also interested in relationships between neuroplasticity and brood care. Among social insects, queens dominate reproduction while workers forego their own reproduction to care for siblings. How does the brain influence this process? What does a ‘brood care’ brain look like and are workers born this way? We are using structure-specific volumetric changes and the localization and quantification of octopaminergic and dopaminergic neurons to assess the effects of brood care experience on the brains of bumble bee queens and workers.

For more information contact Mal Hagadorn mahagadorn@aggiemail.usu.edu or Karen Kapheim karen.kapheim@usu.edu or visit us at: http://www.kapheimlab.com/

Consequences of Host Life Cycles for Symbiont Evolution and Host Diversification

Graduate Student Project

Consequences of Host Life Cycles for Symbiont Evolution and Host Diversification

Using the aphid-Buchnera system to understand the interplay between host ecology and symbiont genome degradation.

For more information contact Ashley Dederich ashley.dederich@aggiemail.usu.edu

Genomic Comparisons among Varieties of a Primrose Species Complex in the Great Basin

Graduate Student Project

Genomic Comparisons among Varieties of a Primrose Species Complex in the Great Basin

Primula cusickiana var. maguirei (Maguire’s Primrose) is a plant endemic to Logan Canyon. Past research into the population genetics of this threatened plant has shown a marked degree of genetic distance between its relatively proximate (~10 km) upper and lower canyon populations. This research examines how each of these Logan Canyon populations relate to the larger species complex that maguirei belongs to. Samples from all P. cusickiana species complex members were collected from sites across the Great Basin, and a restriction site-associated sequencing (RADseq) approach was used to analyze their relatedness.

For more information contact Austin Koontz austin.koontz@usu.edu

A Phylogenetically-based Solution to Ambiguous Species Delimitation in Studies of Assemblage Structure

Graduate Student Project

A Phylogenetically-based Solution to Ambiguous Species Delimitation in Studies of Assemblage Structure

Microbial ecologists use Operational Taxonomic Units (OTUs) to group microbial taxa into species equivalents based on percentage similarity thresholds for barcode gene regions. However, there’s contention over what threshold values should be used for defining these units, causing OTUs to lack the evolutionary significance of species. This research uses a phylogenetic transformation approach to determine the effects that different species boundaries have on assessments of community diversity.

For more information contact Austin Koontz austin.koontz@usu.edu

Breeding Ecology of Ferruginous Hawks

Graduate Student Project

Breeding Ecology of Ferruginous Hawks

Ferruginous hawks, Buteo regalis, are the largest soaring hawks in North America and a "Species of Greatest Conservation Need" in the current Utah Wildlife Action Plan. Their breeding range extends across the Western US and into Canada, encompassing high elevation sagebrush steppe. The areas in which these birds breed have undergone extensive development for oil and natural gas extraction. As a strategy to mitigate the disturbances caused by this development, wildlife management agencies have put up artificial nesting platforms to promote breeding success. These platforms have high occupancy rates and birds consistently use them for nesting. I am looking at the parasite loads of nestlings reared on platform nests, to better understand nestling health and long-term survivorship.

For more information contact Ellis Juhlin ellis.juhlin@usu.edu

Microbial Facilitation of Exploitation in a Plant-Pollinator Mutualism

Graduate Student Project

Microbial Facilitation of Exploitation in a Plant-Pollinator Mutualism

Flowering plants host nectar-inhabiting microbiota (NIM) which have been identified as significant mediators of mutualistic plant-pollinator interactions. Although recent studies have explored the chemical ecology of NIM interactions with their plant hosts and pollinators, the effects of NIM on exploitative interactions has yet to be investigated. Our goal is to answer whether or not NIM can tip the balance from mutualistic to exploitative interactions. In this study, I will first test the effects of nectar robbing bumble bees, Bombus occidentalis, on the floral microbiome of Corydalis caseana ssp. brandegeei (Fumariaceae), a subalpine perennial herb that blooms from mid-June to September in habitats near the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. I will then assess how primary robber-associated NIM affect floral phenotype by analysing floral scent and nectar characteristics. Finally, I will look at impacts of primary robber-associated NIM on the nectar foraging decisions of Bombus appositus, the main pollinator and occasional secondary nectar robber of this plant species, and measure effects on plant reproductive success. Insights gained from this research will contribute to the rapidly growing body of knowledge on cross-kingdom interactions between pollinators, plants, and microbiota; understudied partners that may have strong impacts on the strategy choices of nectar foragers and thus consequences for plant fitness

For more information contact Valerie Martin valerie.nmartin@aggiemail.usu.edu

How the Bee Communities at Pinnacles National Park have Changed Over Time

Graduate Student Project

How the Bee Communities at Pinnacles National Park have Changed Over Time

Pinnacles National Park has been considered a biodiversity hotspot for bees based on studies conducted over the last 30 years. We will compare historical data on the bee community to current data to see how pollinators may be affected by climate change and environmental factors from the surrounding matrix, such as agriculture and pesticide use. We spent the 2020 field season pan trapping and aerial netting bees in the park. Our collection efforts this field season resulted in approximately 20,000 bee specimens which will be pinned, labeled, and identified to species. This information will then be used to tell us community data in the park. We also hope to analyze the data to compare preferences among generalist and specialist bee species for invasive or native plants and habitat type.

For more information contact Abigail Lehner abigail.lehner@aggiemail.usu.edu

Integrated management strategies for invasive insects, Graduate students Cody Holthouse and Zach Schumm

Development of Integrated Management Strategies for Invasive Insects

A primary research focus is on the invasive brown marmorated stink bug (BMS). Studies have addressed its phenology, host range, and injury to susceptible fruit crops, including tart cherry. Surveys for native and introduced parasitoid wasps have been conducted in urbanized northern Utah. The exotic samurai wasp, Trissolcus japonicus, has been detected in Salt Lake and Utah counties, and has demonstrated effective parasitism rates of BMSB. New research is assessing olfactory cues and conservation of T. japonicus with cover crops.

For more information contact Dr. Diane Alston, diane.alston@usu.edu

Adaptation to Novel Host Plants by Seed Beetles

Adaptation to Novel Host Plants by Seed Beetles

We use seed beetles as a model system to understand what determines the host ranges of herbivorous insects. We measure genomic and phenotypic changes that accompany shifts to novel hosts, particularly in cases where a host is initially of poor quality. In a related project, we are examining the basis of resistance to seed beetles in a crop host, and are attempting to identify genomic regions and candidate genes conferring resistance.

For more information contact Dr. Frank Messina, frank.messina@usu.edu

Why do plants produce so many different chemical compounds?

Why do plants produce so many different chemical compounds?

Most theory and empirical research in plant chemical ecology has focused on the defense of leaves, yet fruits thread a more complicated chemical path, simultaneously defending against enemies and attracting dispersers. Plant chemistry represents an underappreciated dimension of diversity that is critical for mediating plant interactions and, ultimately, plant fitness. Metabolomics is a rapidly growing field with over 200,000 described secondary metabolites in the plant kingdom.

For more information contact Dr. Noelle Beckman, noelle.beckman@usu.edu

Why do plants produce so many different chemical compounds?

Documenting frog skeleton diversity over 200 million years of evolution

A number of research projects in the WoLab investigate how different bones in the frog skeleton have evolved during the 200 million years frogs have inhabited the planet. We test whether changes in certain frog skeleton features (like toe shape or spine shape) have changed in relation to where frogs live on earth, what they do (burrow, climb trees, swim), and how they develop. The goal of this research is to document the diversity found in the >7,000 species of frogs currently known and to better understand how each species interacts with their environment.
Students working on related research projects learn about frog anatomy, learn how to manipulate and measure 3D data, and are introduced to coding and analysis in R. No prior experience in any of these areas is necessary and interested student researchers only need to be motivated to learn and contribute to the research.

You can find student-led publications related to this work on the WoLab website. For more information contact Dr. Molly Womack molly.womack@usu.edu.

Occurrence and regulation of life history trade-offs in Side-blotched Lizards (Uta stansburiana)

Occurrence and regulation of life history trade-offs in Side-blotched Lizards (Uta stansburiana)

We are interested in how organisms regulate and maintain key life-history processes in the face of a changing environment, especially in response to anthropogenic disturbances. Our lab uses an integrative approach to examine the mechanisms by which organisms cope with costly competing demands. Our research involves ongoing field work to examine naturally occurring trade-offs, but also addresses specific mechanistic questions via controlled laboratory experiments. We utilize and integrate endocrine, immune, behavioral, and energetic techniques to investigate physiological interactions among life history processes and the role energy allocation plays in regulating these interactions. We also apply this understanding of physiological regulation to existing environmental concerns - such as introduction of pathogens, degradation of habitat, altered resource availability, and climate change. We are currently investigating the impact of various levels of human disturbance in the state of Utah on natural physiological processes and the survival and fitness consequences.

For more information contact Dr. Susannah French susannah.french@usu.edu

Ecotourism and its effects on the physiology of Bahamian Rock Iguanas (Cyclura cychlura)

Ecotourism and its effects on the physiology of Bahamian Rock Iguanas (Cyclura cychlura)

Ecotourism has become a very prevalent industry that has allowed many people the opportunity to see and interact with wildlife all over the world. While opening up these sorts of opportunities to the public is incredibly important, we don't yet have a clear understanding of how ecotourism is impacting wildlife, especially on the long-term scale. Our primary species is the Bahamian Rock Iguana (Cyclura cychlura), which is found in the Exumas, Bahamas. The Bahamian economy is heavily reliant on tourism and often ecotourism experiences include interaction with different species. For this project we are examining the interactions between different aspects of iguana physiology, immunology and the microbiome in order to gain a better understanding of how changes in diet, caused by tourist feeding, might be impacting the overall health and survival of the species. Cyclura cychlura is a critically endangered species and therefore impacts of tourism could be highly detrimental to their survival. For this project we not only aim to gain a better understanding of the effects of ecotourism on the physiology and immunology of a free-living organism but to contribute to the conservation efforts of Rock Iguanas in the Exumas, Bahamas.

For more information contact Dr. Susannah French susannah.french@usu.edu

Physiological fitness and reproduction in the endangered Roatán spiny-tailed iguana (Ctenosaura oedirhina) (Cyclura cychlura)

Physiological fitness and reproduction in the endangered Roatán spiny-tailed iguana (Ctenosaura oedirhina)

Ctenosaura oedirhina is listed as endangered by the IUCN with between 3760-7360 iguanas left in the wild. The populations on Roatán are substantially fragmented and gene flow is limited across sub-populations due to high hunting pressures outside of protected areas. We assess the health of the populations of C. oedirhina on Roatán by examining their parasite load and immune status. Monitoring the iguanas’ health is important as a healthy population is needed to continue propagation of the species. We also study their reproductive biology to understand the timing and costs of reproductive events. A better understanding of reproductive and nesting requirements can be passed on to local stakeholders to increase protection of nest sites during this sensitive period. Varying levels of stress and energy metabolites can also affect the reproductive output of females. Thus, we concurrently measure corticosterone (stress hormone), energy metabolites such as glucose, triglycerides, and glycerol, and reproductive rates using ultrasonography.

For more information contact Dr. Susannah French susannah.french@usu.edu

Assessing the potential spread of Eleutherodactylus coqui in Hawaii

Assessing the potential spread of Eleutherodactylus coqui in Hawaii

The coqui frog (Eleutherodactylus coqui) was introduced to the Island of Hawaii in the late 1980’s via the floricultural trade [1] and has since spread throughout most of the island creating significant economic [2] and ecological [3, 4] impacts. Specifically, its loud mating has caused property values to decline [2], and its high densities have been shown to alter invertebrate communities [3] and nutrient cycling rates [4]. Currently, the extent of the coqui’s distribution is limited to low elevation areas, particularly on the eastern side of the island [5]. However, concern remains that the frogs will invade higher elevation habitats where the majority of the island’s endemic species are found. The purpose of our research is to determine if it is possible for the coqui frog to invade these habitats via increasing global temperatures, physiological adaptations, or both. We will use presence/absence data collected across the island to create species distribution models of the coqui frog's current distribution, as well as it's predicted future distribution under various climate change scenarios. Comparing these models will allow us to predict whether previously uninhabited areas of the island - such as high elevation habitats - will become suitable to coqui frogs, furthering their spread across the island. To investigate potential adaptation to conditions associated with high elevation habitats, we will test the coqui frog's physiological tolerance to low temperatures. Using critical thermal minimum tests and assays to quantify the production of hormones and proteins, we will compare the thermal physiology of frogs from high and low elevation populations and determine if the frogs can adapt to their local environment. Taken together, this research will help us understand the threat the coqui frog poses to endemic species in high elevations and could influence management plans to protect these habitats.

For more information contact Dr. Susannah French susannah.french@usu.edu

Identification and management of plant diseases

Identification and management of plant diseases

We have several research projects that focus on development of management options for farmers and growers of vegetables, cut flowers hemp and tree fruit. Currently, a major project focuses on the identification of bacterial pathogens causing bulb rots of onion in Utah bacterial and the development of management strategies in collaboration with scientist from across the country and South Africa. Other projects include identification and management of dahlia and hemp diseases. In addition, we have a lot of smaller projects going on and several undergraduate students learn lab techniques and have their own research projects.

For more information contact Dr. Claudia Nischwitz claudia.nischwitz@usu.edu

Why do fools fall in love?” Comparative neuroanatomy of the monogamous brain

"Why do fools fall in love?" Comparative neuroanatomy of the monogamous brain

The capacity to form and maintain selective and long-lasting attachment relationships requires the coordination of function across multiple signaling systems of the brain. Hormones like oxytocin and vasopressin have been shown to be critical for the formation of a pair-bond between unrelated adults after mating. By studying the brains of monogamous animals, we can better understand how these social circuits of the brain govern social attachments and social cognition, more broadly. We take a comparative approach across rodents, canids, and primates (including humans) to study postmortem brain tissue from species that form lasting pair bonds in order to better understand the neural substrates that are responsible for the unique and long-lasting social phenomenon of social bonding. By understanding how the oxytocin and vasopressin circuits of the brains of diverse taxa are similar or different, we can gain new insights into the shared and unique aspects of the neurobiology of sociality.

For more information contact Dr. Sara Freeman sara.freeman@usu.edu

Oxytocin & the Neurobiology of Autism

Oxytocin & the Neurobiology of Autism

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a human psychiatric condition characterized by deficits in social skills and communication. There are currently no FDA-approved drugs to treat the social symptoms of ASD, but the hormone oxytocin has recently become a promising experimental therapeutic due to its ability to modulate social behavior in animals and in nonclinical populations of humans. While the neurobiology of ASD is an ongoing research priority for a large number of neuroscientists, little is known about the potential involvement of the brain’s oxytocin system in the etiology of ASD. Our research uses postmortem brain tissue from donors who had ASD, compared with age-, sex-, and race-matched specimens from typically-developing donors in order to directly investigate the differences which may be contributing to ASD symptomology. We study oxytocin receptor distribution and density, mRNA expression levels and locations, and genetic variations in the oxytocin receptor gene as well as across the genome. By linking variation in genetics, neural phenotypes, and social behavior, we may be able to identify biomarkers that could lead to earlier diagnosis and treatment.

For more information contact Dr. Sara Freeman sara.freeman@usu.edu

Exploring Coyote Sociality: Hormones, Brains, & Behavior

Exploring Coyote Sociality: Hormones, Brains, & Behavior

Like humans, coyotes are highly intelligent mammals that have expanded rapidly across North America and have successfully infiltrated nearly all available ecological niches. Coyotes also form lasting pair bonds as a feature of their monogamous mating structure. In fact, Canidae is one class of highly social mammals that has been understudied with respect to the biological basis of social attachment. While monogamy is relatively rare in mammals (3-9% of mammals; 16% of carnivores; 15-25% of primates), all canid species studied to date exhibit monogamy. In no other group of mammals is the pair bond this prevalent. This feature of canids renders them particularly interesting for the biological study of social attachment. We have begun designing experiments to assess the connectedness between brains, behavior, and hormones in an effort to establish the biological basis for pair bonding in a canid model.

For more information contact Dr. Sara Freeman sara.freeman@usu.edu

Flower Metabolomics

Flower Metabolomics

Flowers have evolved an organ-specific type of metabolism where primary and specialized metabolites contribute to bolstering reproduction, the ultimate physiological function of flowers. Flower primary metabolites sustain development and the initial phases of fruit and seed set. Primary metabolites also serve as precursors for the synthesis of pigments, scents, and nectar, which attract and lure pollinators. To understand how the metabolism of flowers changes during development and in response to climate change and drive pollination success of selfing and outcrossing species, we utilize a metabolomics approach – that is the study of all metabolites present in flowers and the genes that control their synthesis, storage, and secretion

For more information contact Dr. Moncia Borghi monica.borghi@usu.edu

Bird / Window Collisions

Bird / Window Collisions

It is estimated that window collisions kills one billion birds per year in the United States. I’ve been working with the USU Bird Strike Team to understand how landscaping affects bird collisions and documenting the success of mitigation strategies. Currently I am working with Drs. Mark Koven and Clark Rushing on using UV emitters to prevent bird collisions.

For more information contact Dr. Kim Sullivan kim.sullivan@usu.edu

Variation in vector distribution caused by complex evolutionary and ecological interactions between the organism and the local environment

Modeling variation in vector distribution and movement caused by complex evolutionary and ecological interactions between insects and the local environment.

According to the World Health Organization, vector-borne diseases account for more than 17% of all infectious diseases worldwide. Vectorial capacity is heterogeneous across the landscape because of variation in the disease, risk of human contact with the vector, and the vector’s distribution. Variation in distribution is caused by complex evolutionary and ecological interactions between the organism and the local environment over multiple generations. One such vector is the African tsetse fly (genus Glossina), which is the insect vector of sleeping sickness, a dangerous disease of humans and animals in sub-Saharan Africa. In a recent paper submitted to the journal Evolutionary Applications, the Saarman Lab predicts where tsetse flies are most likely to be found, and where there are corridors of migration across the landscape in Kenya and Tanzania. Our paper demonstrates that machine learning models can provide highly accurate predictions of tsetse fly habitat use and connectivity, and use these results to inform practical methods of vector control.

For more information contact Norah Saarman norah.saarmal@usu.edu