Sara Berk, PhD Candidate
I am broadly interested in how individual variation in responsiveness to challenging conditions affects the process of sexual selection. The specific aims of my dissertation are to understand how environmental conditions and endocrine physiology lead to variation in the development and honesty of sexually selected traits. I also study how these factors influence female mating behavior.
I study a population of Mountain Bluebirds, Sialia currucoides, outside of Ronan, Montana. I collect long-term data on food availability, fecundity, offspring quality, and parental stress physiology to understand how the honesty of blue coloration (a sexually selected trait) is maintained or breaks down as environmental quality changes. Environmental variation could affect trait honesty if more colorful males are only able to provide benefits in high quality environments. In this case, benefits to females or offspring may disappear in poor environments. Alternatively, more colorful males may be more adept at responding to environmental challenge, and benefits may be more robust when environmental conditions are poor. I use CORT physiology to understand how physiology regulates these changes in trait honesty across resource regimes. I also use laboratory approaches to evaluate how individual CORT physiology impacts a male's ability to produce blue coloration during environmental challenge.
Outside of my research interests, I am passionate about mentoring and teaching undergraduates. I regularly train undergraduates in the field, and across the last three field seasons I have involved 15 undergraduate field assistants in my data collection. I provide substantive field experiences to these students, who work two to three days a week and learn nest monitoring techniques, bird handling, and behavioral observation skills. I also advise senior thesis projects to provide research experience to motivated students. Please contact me if you are interested in summer field opportunities.
sara [dot] berk [at] umconnect [dot] umt [dot] edu
Office: Natural Science 105