Chalicotherium, strange prehistoric mammal — Dear Kitty. Some blog

This 15 September 2019 video says about itself: Chalicotherium – The Hoofed Gorilla-Mimic This strange extinct mammal is actually related to horses, rhinos and tapirs, but they evolved in a very distinct way, giving rise to some of the most unique animals that ever lived. If anyone knows who the artist is that did the […]

via Chalicotherium, strange prehistoric mammal — Dear Kitty. Some blog

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How much can you miss?

I’m always puzzled by students who habitually miss class. I don’t mean the students who are facing serious challenges of one type or another, I mean the ones who wake up and decide, “Nah.” The student – or someone – has forked over a lot of money in tuition and fees and, if for no other reason than that it demonstrates sloppy handling of investments, it seems silly to me to skip out.

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He looks so sad.

People are a diverse lot of course and the flipside is also true: I have students who drag their nearly-dead selves into class when they are sick and should absolutely not be there. But it’s the former I can’t figure out. They could be there and they should be there and it’s well established that missing classes can reduce your grade. I’ve often wondered though, how much can one miss before one’s grades begin to suffer?

It depends, obviously. Miss a day in one of my classes and you can make it up without difficulty. Daydream for 5 minutes in a differential calculus class and your entire semester could be doomed.

Just focusing on one of my classes then, I did some back-of-the-napkin figuring. This class meets just two days a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays for 75 minutes. I have a couple of excused absences built into the grading scheme, to accommodate the aforementioned students who might have to miss from being sick or getting a flat tire or had trouble arranging child care, etc. There are a couple of other meetings that are taken up with exams. All told, there are 26 unexcused meetings of the class for which testable material will be covered. So once a student has used up excused absences, how many more can they miss before they’re likely to drop a letter grade in the course?

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I think it works out a bit like this. To earn an A, one must grasp at least 90% of the material covered. With each unexcused absence, however, the student is missing incrementally more and more of the course content. Mastering 90% of 75% of the material does not produce the same outcome as mastering 90% of 100% of the material. Thus, with all matter of caveats and assumptions about linear relationships, equal amounts of course material provided per lecture, etc. it looks like missing even one more than the two excused absences in my course could be enough to drop an A student to a B. Missing two or three (so four to five total absences) almost certainly costs a full letter grade. Those habitual truants, i.e., people who might wrack up four or five unexcused absences? Even their most diligent efforts will likely relegate them to grades of C or lower. The good news is that this problem is readily corrected by the simple act of walking through the door. Go to class!

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Dear Christian Legislator,

This gallery contains 7 photos.

Originally posted on The Waterthrush Blog:
Look, I get it. You’ve been raised and educated in a society that values faith foremost. The stronger your faith the closer you are to God, and there is no better way to demonstrate…

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Professional development in wildlife ecology and management: A one-stop shop

I’ve written occasionally on the The Waterthrush Blog about various topics to help students succeed through their undergraduate coursework, find opportunities for research and field experience, pursue graduate school, etc. The advice I have to offer comes uniquely though the lens of my personal experiences as someone poor, ill-prepared, and ignorant of the path I needed to follow, but ultimately successful in realizing my goal as a research/teaching professor at a large university. My views are heavily biased but do provide the perspective of remembering what it felt like to be a struggling undergraduate student while today working to mentor students trying to navigate similar struggles. (Also, a lot of my examples focus on building a career in ornithology, but don’t let the specific subject matter distract you from the broader messages.)

This post is simply an effort to consolidate links to others on relevant topics so it’s a bit easier for folks to find potentially helpful content. If there’s a theme to any of these posts, it lies in my desire to make plain the things I wish were made plain to me, long before I ultimately figured them out.

  1. How to achieve academic success in college.
  2. How to write a cover letter.
  3. What’s undergraduate research about, and how can I do it?
  4. This is how you go to graduate school.
  5. You can train yourself toward more effective productivity.
  6. Hiring? Recommendation letters suck, so don’t ask for them.
  7. Where should we try to publish?
  8. Social media and academia?
  9. Uprooting for a faculty job.
  10. Sometimes PhDs wear funny robes. Here’s how to do it on the cheap.


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My lifer Whooping Crane – something I thought I might never see

It’s been a long time coming, but I was recently guided to my lifer WHOOPING CRANE by my nephews Benjamin and Matt Hack (+ special guest star Matt’s friend Kaitie) at a lake near Dexter, Michigan.

This is an ENDANGERED SPECIES that has been the subject of intense conservation management (including captive breeding and restoration of regionally extinct populations) for decades.

Thousands of birders in the US travel to the Aransas NWR on the Texas Coast where (until recently) almost the entire free-flying population would spend the winter. Come spring, the birds from this population migrate north to breed in Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, CN – it’s a lot tougher to find them there!

Since moving to Oklahoma, it would have been pretty easy to catch these birds in Texas, but I decided that was too easy. Instead, I tried to encounter them during their migration here in Oklahoma, which gave me a window each year of a couple of weeks in April and November. Of course I’m too busy in most years to even try once, and the attempts I have made have come up short.

Learning last weekend that there was a Whooper nearby in Michigan led to a decision. Abandon my goal of seeing the bird first in Oklahoma or take advantage of the chance to see one with my nephews? Of course, the chance to share this with my nephews won out and the lifer* was observed and marveled at for a good long time!

(*Technically not a lifer by ABA rules because this MI bird was a member of an experimental population the USFWS is trying to re-establish in Wisconsin. It’s not a self-sustaining population just yet so it’s technically un-countable as a truly wild bird.)

As we were enjoying the Whooping Crane (with its Sandhill buddies), an adult and then an immature BALD EAGLE flew in, wafting over the lake on long, wide wings. To provide some perspective for the young’ns with me, I described to them my thoughts as a boy getting into birding in the 1970s. I thought that maybe if I was lucky I might one day see a Bald Eagle. Maybe. I was, however, certain that Whooping Crane would go extinct before I ever got the chance to see one.

We need to celebrate conservation success stories more than we do. They take work, but they do work!
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One to watch: Nick Russo’s Ecology of Bird Movement and Dispersal

via Research

Follow the link above to the Nick Russo’s website Ecology of Bird Movement and Dispersal. Interesting work and a lot more to come I’d wager!

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Undergraduate research in my lab? Sure! Here’s how it works.

I spend a lot of time bragging about the 15 graduate students who’ve worked in my lab but this post is inspired by the 28 undergraduates I’ve had the good fortune to mentor in research. Within this group are veterinarians, medical doctors, wildlife biologists, research scientists, consultants, teachers, moms and dads, zookeepers, future grad students, ace field technicians, and the freest of free spirits. They are impressive people, and their journey with me began the day they gingered their swagger to contact me with a simple, but at the time for them, intimidating question: “Are there any opportunities to do an undergraduate research project with you?”


These two superstars, for example. Nathan and Abbey delivering poster presentations to the 125th annual meeting of the Wilson Ornithological Society in Williamsburg, VA.


It’s all about the data.

Our world, i.e., ecology/conservation/management of natural resources, is heavily data driven. Some of our students will go on to careers in research in which they will be the ones to collect, analyze, and interpret such data. Most will not, but they still need the ability to access and understand data. Any opportunity to practice that above and beyond what might be required for specific courses is a good thing. Students can do that and build those skills by helping others carry out their research or conducting their own. Both paths can be wonderful preparation for the next step in a student’s career.



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Weirdo who already wanted to be a professor, ca. 1975

Personally, I knew early on (like kindergarten) that I wanted to pursue a career in research, but I did not know exactly how to do that at the undergraduate level. I was barely passing my classes and working in the dining halls to pay my bills. In November of my junior year I was taking Mammalogy and, evidently, my enthusiasm was on display one afternoon in lab. My teaching assistant John Hayes (today Dean of the Warner College of Natural Resources at Colorado State University!) took notice and asked a simple question: “Why aren’t you working as a technician for one of our grad students?” I was floored. “You can do that?!” I truly had no idea.

Not long after, I was working as a field technician for the New York Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit in Cornell University’s Department of Natural Resources. They were paying me to conduct bird counts, mist-net birds, trap and mark voles, collect and identify native insects, seine fish, look for bugs in flying lemur poop, measure cattail leaves, and orchestrate a captive breeding program for New York State’s last three Allegheny woodrats. I never went back to dish machine operator in the dining halls. Two summers of honing skills I learned in labs (and many I hadn’t) gave me the boost I needed to compensate a bit for my lousy GPA. Someone took a chance on me for a master’s degree, and the rest is a bit of arcane history – culminating in my current position of being that person guiding undergraduates to their first experience experience.


Was this undergraduate trip to a cattail marsh formative in Lisa’s pursuit of a PhD on Clapper Rails???

So that’s the first lesson: Not only can you gain important experience working (and getting paid) as a technician on a graduate student’s project, we want you to do that. If we don’t have to engage in a national search to find good field technicians, we’d rather not. If for no other reason than that you already have an apartment here, it’s a lot easier for all parties when we can find quality technicians among our own undergrads. For your part though, you need to meet us halfway by developing the kind of skills we might be looking for. Often, field technicians will be 100% trained by the graduate student for the work they will do, so all you need to do to succeed on such a project is be open-minded and responsible and safety-conscious and no-drama easy-going with a desire to WORK no matter what hours, how hot, how bad the ticks are, etc. But just as often there are certain skills that we don’t have time for you to develop on the job, and if you don’t have them then I can’t use you. The best example in my lab is identifying birds by song and call. The basic data structure for most of our projects is go here and write down what birds are there. Can I essentially air-drop you someplace and have you identify something like 100 different songs and calls of the local birds? If yes, we’re in business. If no, then I need to look elsewhere.

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Fidel worked with several undergrad technicians during his PhD. Here he is with Nathan walking a dry creek bed to survey Cooper’s Hawk nests.

That’s the second lesson: Identify the skills that would make you marketable and develop those as much as you can, on your own. There is an extraordinary amount of personal development you can do on your own time to advance your career in wildlife ecology. Usually this involves learning to identify things in nature: birds, herps, plants, insects. If you have these skills you will not go hungry. Other biggies include things you might take for granted: Can you back a trailer, drive a stickshift, operate an ATV, use a GPS, use a compass (for when the GPS battery dies), etc? Above all, do you have a safe driving record? These things really matter, and they’re largely things we cultivate on our time. I often tell students that every important opportunity I’ve had in my career boiled down to two things: I could write clearly and I could identify birds by song and call. I had mastered both of these things by high school, and the latter I did completely on my own.


So that’s helping other people do research; what about conducting your own?

I see two big categories of approaches to do that. The first is the smart way, at least from the professor’s perspective: You, the undergraduate student, join a lab to help a graduate student – much like I described above. In this case, however, the graduate student is one of several working on different pieces of some big system that is a focus for the professor’s lab. Maybe it’s something like a lab that studies “wetlands” and at any given time there are graduate students studying soils, plants, insects, birds, amphibians, etc. There are always samples to be collected and curated, data to be entered, etc. You are assigned to one of these pieces – and to one of the graduate students who ends up actually mentoring you, day-to-day. You end up carving out a little piece of the data and analysis for yourself that becomes your research project. Perhaps that is an extra chapter of the graduate student’s thesis, i.e., something they’d love to do but don’t have time to do themselves. This is a wonderful opportunity for all. You benefit from being part of a team and the work and wisdom of multiple people working out the details of your methods and analysis before you ever get started. You have a built-in mentor who is keenly motivated to see you succeed and, especially, to develop an analysis that can be published. The graduate student mentor gets to incorporate a aspect of their work that might otherwise fall by the wayside. You are networking and building collaborative relationships that can support you throughout your career.

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Andrew Forbes’ lab at the University of Iowa is a great example of how the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program can provide outstanding mentoring experiences for young scholars, including those still in high school.

The other category of undergraduate research is what I tend to do, not because I prefer it necessarily – I love the graduate student mentor model – but because I generally don’t have multiple students working on the same thing in a lab at any given time. My students tend to work on similar themes, but seldom on the same project. We don’t really collect things from nature to bring back to a physical lab for curation. We far more often return from the field with datasheets than we do with physical specimens (e.g., soil samples, insect collections) that need to be identified and curated. Increasingly, we’ve been skipping the field work part altogether: we’re downloading the data we use from existing programs like the North American Breeding Bird Survey or the PRISM Climate Group. This makes it a bit more challenging to carve out a piece of any one project for an undergraduate to do, and rarely do undergrads get excited about data-mining. They want to be outside collecting their own data!


Keep running those BBS routes – we need the data!

That’s where I begin, then. Undergraduate: what do you know how to do? I work with each student to develop a unique project all their own. The topics are driven by what skills the student brings to the process, what is likely to be accomplished in the allotted time, and, ultimately, what the student would like to learn more about. The trade-off from not walking into an established system in which the student can be easily plugged is that the student is truly a partner with me in this research endeavor. I am mentoring of course, but the student is at least as much an intellectual leader in this process as I am. The student is fully involved in every aspect of the research, from day one. Compared to the graduate student mentor model, the “success” rate as defined by seeing the research through to publication tends to be lower, but I suspect that the personal growth in terms of truly understanding how research progresses from vague idea to finished product is higher. Again, that’s not to indicate a preference for one model over another; it’s just an artifact of the type of projects we tend to have in my lab.

Ultimately, my goal for you (and me!) is that some kind of publication is indeed a product of your undergraduate research. My approach with a new student researcher is to sort of reverse-engineer the project from that end goal.

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The objective? Something like this!

How can we do that? It’s just a few simple steps, really:

  • conduct literature search on the general topic that interests you
  • read
  • read some more
  • read stuff that might be relevant to your question even if it’s a vastly different system (e.g., read about predation by insects, fish, and plants even if you’re studying leopards)
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Seventy percent of all [research] is done in the library!

  • develop an annotated bibliography of the literature
  • think – then zero in on the most specific hypothesis to test or knowledge gap to fill that will advance the science related to your question
  • write a 3–5 paragraph essay to justify the hypothesis you propose to test (this is the Introduction)
  • write a 5–7 paragraph description of what type of data you will collect, including from where, how much, and how you will analyze (this will be your Methods)
  • use basic Introduction and Methods you have now written as a proposal to submit to potential scholarships and other funding sources
  • apply for any permits you might need to collect and analyze the data you need
  • get $$$ to do the work (celebrate!)
  • collect, archive, and prepare data for analysis
  • analyze data
  • take time to digest the results of analysis and put in context of previous literature so we truly understand what we’ve got
  • prepare poster presentation of research
  • deliver poster presentation of research to societal or undergraduate research symposium


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Brittany had an idea, applied for funding, got funding (!), collected and analyzed original field data, and presented this superb poster at an undergraduate research symposium. Be like Brittany!

  • conduct another literature search to find relevant papers published since you started the project
  • prepare manuscript using feedback from poster presentation and incorporating new literature
  • send manuscript to at least one other person you trust to provide constructive feedback
  • format manuscript to journal specifications
  • submit manuscript (celebrate again!)

The email from the journal acknowledging receipt of your manuscript submission is cause for great celebration!

I know that’s a lot of steps, but charting it out like this is a big part of success in research, i.e., developing a plan and sticking to it. For your part, you can start whenever you’re ready. Objective #1 will be to progress toward the bolded part about submitting a proposal. It’s the case here and I assume at just about any university that there is some kind of program to encourage undergraduate research through grants and scholarships. Scientific and professional societies also make small grants available for this kind of undergraduate development. This can specifically be money for supplies or travel to support the direct costs of doing the work, it can be money that goes straight to your pocket so that you don’t need another job while working on the research, it can fund your travel to a conference to deliver a presentation, etc.

If this sounds good to you then the easiest place to start is a search of published literature in Google Scholar. Let’s get started!



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