Sunday, June 16th, 2024
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Researching Cooperative Courtship

Millersville University Prof/Students Study Manakins.

Dr. Brent Horton takes “bird watching” to a whole new level. A biology professor at Millersville University (MU), Horton studies the physiological and behavioral ecology of birds; that is, he examines how and why birds behave the way they do to help us understand the causes and consequences of behavior in all vertebrate animals, including ourselves. To this end, he integrates multiple fields of biology and collaborates with researchers at several institutions on animal behavior. Horton involves undergraduate students at MU in all aspects of this collaborative research.

Wire-tailed manakin, a small, colorful bird from the Ecuadorean Amazon on his display perch. There is a silver antenna barely distinguishable from his black, wire-like tail feathers. Males also wear a unique combination of colored leg bands for identification with binoculars.

Specifically, Horton is an expert on the physiological bases of avian social behavior, and one of his current research projects focuses on the wire-tailed manakin, a small, colorful bird from the Ecuadorean Amazon. “These birds exhibit a rare form of cooperation,” explains Horton. “Two males will work together in a coordinated courtship display to impress females, even though only one of them will mate during a successful encounter with a female. Indeed, males form stable, long-term display partnerships that can last for years, and which form the basis of a complex social network.”

Every winter for the past five years, Horton has traveled to the Amazon with Millersville students to study the unique behavior of wire-tailed manakins and better understand how and why these birds do what they do. This work was funded by a $850,000 NSF grant, and a supplementary $25,000 NSF grant obtained by Horton and his collaborators to fund MU student involvement in the research.

“In the world of wire-tailed manakins, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” says Horton.

“Male birds who are the most well-connected in their social network (i.e., have the most display partners) get the female and achieve the greatest reproductive success,” says Horton. “We are trying to understand the hormonal and genetic bases of their unique form of cooperation. One thing we have found is that males of higher social status have higher levels of testosterone than subordinate males, but they are not aggressive toward other males, which is a paradox in the animal kingdom.”

Male wire-tailed manakins involved in the study are fitted with coded nanotags (radio transmitters) so the researchers can track their behavior. In this image you can see the black and white transmitter ‘backpack.’

Field experiments have included putting miniature radio transmitter “backpacks” on the birds and using an advanced automated telemetry system to measure interactions among males and describe their social network. The work strives to increase our understanding of how hormone-mediated variation in male cooperative behavior influences social status and, ultimately, social network structure.

Working alongside experts from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest University, Eastern Carolina and others, Millersville students gain invaluable research experience, build connections with international researchers, and often continue on to graduate studies. For example, a recent MU graduate, Jennifer Houtz, who traveled to the Amazon with Horton three times, is now working toward her Ph.D at Cornell University. Horton’s current student, Lindsay Matter, a senior biology major at Millersville, has traveled to both Ecuador and Panama for manakin-related work. This fall, she’ll travel with Horton to Brazil for her second international meeting.  This research network, of which Horton is a founding member, is made up of experts from around the globe who are sequencing manakin genomes and using genetics to understand complex social behavior.

“Lindsay is doing phenomenal work,” says Horton. “She’s involved in international research collaborations, and she and Christina Clawson ’17, are leading a team of Millersville biology students in the production of the first ever Manakin Coloring Book as part of a global education and outreach effort sparked by the Manakin Genomics Network.”

The coloring book will soon be freely available in English, Spanish and Portuguese on the Network’s website: Matter plans to obtain a graduate degree in veterinary medicine.

“We’re always looking for funding to support our projects and students,” said Horton. “My students’ research and their success has relied heavily on student grants and scholarships made possible by our donors. Our Dean, Dr. (Mike) Jackson has been a key player and supporter of our work, and he often draws from donor funds to support student and faculty research.”

To support students like Jennifer, Christina and Lindsay, the Imagine the Possible campaign is raising money for student research, scholarships, student learning experiences and Marauder athletics. You can watch a video about Jenn Houtz talking about manakins on Millersville’s Youtube Channel.



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