Biology professor Kristen Ruegg receives NSF grant to study wintering grounds of migratory birds

A late spring cold snap wipes out a portion of a population of migratory birds. How will this evolutionary event impact the population once they reach their breeding grounds, further north?

That and other questions are what Kristen Ruegg is investigating. By incorporating recent advances in tracking technology, Ruegg’s lab will test theories about the roles of events on the wintering grounds in the process of adaptive evolution. Ruegg received a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) award of $1.18 million to continue her research into migratory birds. Her team will study the migration of 11 species, the first empirical test of the theory that the individuals from the same breeding site migrating to the same wintering site promotes local adaptation in wintering areas.

Ruegg’s research will add a new layer to our understanding of migration. Only recently have scientists begun to understand bird migration, and the majority of research has focused on breeding grounds, which, in North America are often in the U.S. and Canada. Collaborating with researchers in Mexico, Kristen Ruegg will study the wintering grounds of migratory birds, exploring the evolutionary events that occur there. Using this information, Ruegg plans to connect the process of natural selection in populations across their full migratory cycle.

Collaboration and connection

Vital to these research and educational goals are national and international collaboration. Ruegg explained, “What’s powerful about the work is that it’s not something any one person can do. That’s what has made the project successful. I’m hoping the award will help further the partnerships that span international borders.” Through both research and education, Ruegg hopes this work will connect people. Studying birds, she explained, can help move our thinking. “Birds don’t see borders.”

The work Ruegg will do with the grant also includes an educational portion, focusing on improving STEM education for underrepresented students in science. At the local level, Ruegg will facilitate Bird Camp, a multi-day outreach program for low-income schools and CSU’s Environmental Learning Center. Ruegg will also be collaborating with scientists from the U.S. and Mexico to create a short course at CSU’s Todos Santos Center, collecting field samples and doing DNA extraction.

The grant will also help produce “Birds without Borders,” a series of Spanish-language videos highlighting the work of Latinx and female scientists that are part of the Bird Genoscape Project Network. The goal of the video is to elevate the visibility of minoritized scientists to the students. Ruegg explains, “If there are role models they can follow, students are more likely to see themselves as scientists”.

The Department of Biology is part of CSU’s College of Natural Sciences.