Spreading your wings as a student researcher can take you to rewarding places.
Shelby Palmer, a second-year Master of Science in biology student, is the 2023 recipient of the Missouri Birding Society (MBS) Bauer Graduate Scholarship.
Her project, titled “Investigating the relationship between ancestry and song in an avian hybrid zone,” has been the focus of her master’s thesis.
“The thing I find most intriguing about my research project is the same thing that makes it so difficult,” Palmer said. “It’s the puzzle of how vocal behavior develops in a hybrid zone.”
From Warrensburg, Missouri, Palmer’s research interests lie in understanding how the location of certain species determines their vocal behavior.
“I’m studying two songbird species, the Black-capped chickadee and Carolina chickadee, both native to Missouri,” Palmer said. “They share a narrow zone of range overlap through the middle of the state, and hybridize in this ‘hybrid zone,’ creating populations with a mix of Black-capped chickadees, Carolina chickadees and hybrids.”
Upon closer inspection, the behavior of chickadees residing in the ‘hybrid zone’ raises more questions for Palmer.
“Outside of the hybrid zone, Black-capped and Carolina chickadees sing very different songs,” Palmer said. “But in the hybrid zone, this distinction breaks down.
“Many hybrid zone-dwelling chickadees either sing typical songs of both species or mix elements of the two species’ songs to create a new song,” Palmer said. “This makes it basically impossible to identify Black-capped chickadees and Carolina chickadees by ear in the hybrid zone.”
Palmer’s research is looking for a way to fill this gap in identification of the species.
“The goal of my research project is to test for a connection between ancestry and song in a chickadee hybrid zone population, using novel methods to assess this messy system in a new light.”
Her main study site is at Sparrowfoot Park near Clinton, Missouri, where she has spent the last year and a half finding, capturing and collecting data on chickadees in the area.
“I return later to record their songs for several hours and on multiple different days, identifying individuals by looking at their color bands,” Palmer said. “I repeat this process for each singing chickadee I capture, which makes obtaining each data point a very lengthy but worthwhile endeavor.”
Palmer will wrap up her research and graduate this spring, and aims to pursue her PhD S.
This scholarship will help support her research efforts.
“I’m very excited to receive this scholarship from MBS! Because of the time-intensive nature of this project’s data collection, I have to undertake an unexpected spring field season,” Palmer said. “This money will go toward that, including allowing undergraduate students in my lab to join me for a week of uninterrupted field work over spring break.”
Palmer is advised by Dr. Jay McEntee, MSU assistant professor of biology.
“Shelby is very driven and tireless in her efforts as a student and researcher,” McEntee said. “She combines a deep knowledge of birds with a probing scientific mind and a tremendous work ethic to pursue answers to her research questions. What she has accomplished over a short period of time is very impressive.”