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May 27, 2010

ULM biology students receive grant funding to study in Chile and Taiwan

Two University of Louisiana at Monroe biology graduate students were recently notified of almost $1,000 in grant funding from the American Society of Mammalogists.

The funding covers the summer and fall field seasons and will help Monica Stewart of San Antonio, Texas, and Amanda Chappell of Barrington, N.J., pay student travel and equipment expenses for their respective fieldwork. Both students are under the supervision of Dr. Loren Hayes, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology.

Stewart is conducting a study in Chile regarding geographic variation in alarm calls of coruros, an underground rodent with a wide distribution across the central portion of the South American country.

"These animals are unique because, unlike most other subterranean rodents, they live in social groups of up to 30 or more individuals," said Stewart. "Previous studies concerned rodents such as ground squirrels or prairie dogs, but never subterranean rodents."

Stewart said there is also a genetic component in which one of her hypotheses states that genetically similar haplotype groups of coruros have similar alarm calls.

"The idea is to test whether genetics trumps environmental factors likely to affect the characteristics of a call," said Stewart, who will maintain a blog about her time in Chile through the Office of Career Connections and Experiential Education.

Chappell's research, meanwhile, has taken her to the other side of the Pacific Ocean and into Taiwan, a coastal island off Mainland China. Her research concerns how different ecological factors, such as habitat openness, food abundance and predation risk, affect the mating system strategies of the Taiwan field vole.

"This rodent is ideal for my study because it is endemic to Taiwan and occurs in high altitude alpine forests, as well as the surrounding evergreen forests, providing potential for there to be variation in sociality and mating systems in different habitats," said Chappell.

Chappell said previous studies suggest that the vole is socially monogamous - a rare strategy among mammals. It is monomorphic, meaning there are no differences in appearance between males and females, and has high home range overlap between individual male-female pairs similar to the prairie vole, which is the model organism for monogamy.

"Research on other monogamous voles show high concentrations of neuropeptide receptors in the reward and reinforcement regions of the brain, while non-monogamous species have few, if any, receptors in these regions," said Chappell. "By using viral vector gene-transfer, a causal link has also been found between receptor expression and mating system variation."

Chappell said she is testing to see if Taiwan voles have these receptors in their brains in support of the model for monogamy and if their mating system changes under different ecological conditions.

"My research is significant because it links ecological variation and mating systems with the underlying neuropeptide receptors upon which natural selection can act," she said.

"Getting ASM funding was a particularly impressive accomplishment this year," said Dr. Hayes. "Awards were granted to about 30 percent of applicants, a group that included Ph.D. students from around the country. This speaks to the quality of Amanda and Monica's project ideas and proposal writing."

Hayes said accomplishments such as these increases a student's competitiveness for doctoral programs and academic positions at research universities.

"They both have bright futures ahead of them," he said.

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