Student Biodiversity Reseach Grant

This program provides financial support for University of Wyoming undergraduate and graduate students conducting innovative and high-impact research projects that address important topics in biodiversity scholarship. The research proposals that are funded will be directly concerned with biological diversity, but not necessarily restricted to the natural sciences, and are for students' own independent research ideas.


Look for announcements Soon.


2017 Grant Recipients

Lindsey Sanders

Department of Zoology and Physiology

Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit

Advisor Dr. Anna Chalfoun

Mechanisms underlying increased songbird nest predation rates with natural gas development

Summary:  Habitat loss and alteration resulting from human activities are affecting wildlife species around the globe. Mechanisms underlying such effects are rarely investigated or known, yet are critical for effective mitigation. The sagebrush ecosystem in particular has been extensively fragmented by human activities such as oil and gas extraction, leading to direct habitat loss and habitat fragmentation.

Sagebrush-obligate songbirds are experiencing population declines across the Intermountain west and are species of concern for multiple state and federal agencies. Improved understanding of the effects of habitat change on sagebrush-obligate songbirds, and the associated mechanisms responsible for these effects, is therefore of great interest to conservation practitioners. Previous work in our lab group demonstrated lower abundance of sagebrush songbirds with increased surrounding habitat loss due to natural gas development in western Wyoming, and has shown that increased nest predation was at least partly responsible. We know from video monitoring that rodents are the primary nest predators of sagebrush songbirds in our study area, and that rodents are also more abundant near energy development.  What remains unclear is why rodents are more abundant in areas surrounding natural gas fields, which is the primary focus of my thesis research.


Zoe Ash-Kropf

Ecosystem Science and Management Department

Advisor: Dr. Karen Vaughan

Soil Microbial Community Diversity and Function in Recently Thawed High-Alpine Permafrost Soils

Summary: Permafrost, or permanently frozen ground, is a major carbon sink storing over 40% of terrestrial carbon. Upon warming, cold-adapted organisms called ‘psychrophiles’ cause the release of greenhouse gases, including CO2 and CH4,via mineralization that accelerate changing climatic conditions. The Snowy Range Mountains (SRM) located west of Laramie, Wyoming contain all the required conditions for permafrost to exist. After initial field observations, permafrost was not found despite the presence of periglacial features and anecdotal evidence of recently frozen ground at the study site. This presents a unique opportunity to study an understudied realm within permafrost research, the microbial ecology of recently thawed high-alpine permafrost soils. Within permafrost, there is high potential for the preservation of microbial life and biodiversity, and as permafrost melts, the potential for organisms that were once inactive to become active increases. Given the changing climatic conditions in the SRM, I propose to evaluate the biodiversity within deep soil profiles of recently thawed soils in the SRM. In contrast to many soil microbial studies, digging deeper within the profile and evaluating the microbial communities as a function of depth will provide researchers with a better idea of how recent thaw has affected the microbial diversity and function.


Brady Godwin

Program in Ecology

Advisor: Holly Ernest

High-altitude gene flow and a changing world: Rocky Mountain hummingbirds in sky-island habitats

Summary: Genetic diversity directly correlates with fitness and viability of a population or species and is a fundamental aspect of biodiversity recognized by researchers and organizations such as the IUCN. Small, fragmented populations can experience rapid losses in genetic diversity limiting their ability to adapt to changing environments.In the Rocky Mountains, Broad-tailed Hummingbirds breed in isolated, high-elevation, “sky island” habitats which are at risk of shrinking from climate change. Banding data from limited locations indicate strong site fidelity, potentially limiting gene flow and reducing population viability. Our goal is to assess spatial patterns of gene flow and genetic diversity among geographically-separated breeding sites to help assess risks of population declines. I hypothesize that hummingbirds will exhibit population structure and inbreeding based on their fidelity to breeding sites. In Summer 2016, I sampled 283 Broad-tailed Hummingbirds throughout Wyoming and Colorado. I seek funding to complete Summer 2017 field and laboratory work. I will estimate genetic structure across this range using genomic data (SNPs) obtained from reduced-representation genomic sequencing. Hummingbirds’ popularity allows for exceptional public interest, and I will use this interest for outreach including banding demonstrations, public talks, and feeder placement at Laramie senior citizen facilities.


Dan Albrech-Mallinger

Department of Zoology and Physiology

Advisor: Dr. Corey Tarwater

Linking resource availability to patterns of abundance and individual condition in tropical bird communities along a strong rainfall gradient

Summary: In Neotropical forests, climate change is expected to increase rainfall variability and seasonal drought. The demography of tropical avian species has been shown to respond to changes in rainfall, with responses varying among foraging guilds. Although previous work has been informative and helped to generate hypotheses, we still do not know the mechanisms leading to these changes, why species differ in response, or how response varies across spatial and temporal scales. I will use a strong rainfall gradient in central Panamá to investigate how individual condition and abundance of species from different foraging guilds respond to temporal and spatial variation in food resources and rainfall. Understanding the "hows and whys" of population dynamics is a long-standing question in ecology, and is of ever more importance in a changing world. The proposed research will seek answers about the links between rainfall and demography in a vulnerable, but speciose group of tropical birds.


Jessica Rick

Program in Ecology

Advisor: Dr. Katie Wagner

Linking evolution and the environment in Lake Tanganyika’s Lates species radiation

SUMMARY | Africa’s Lake Tanganyika (LT) is an exemplary study system for investigating effects of historical environmental conditions on biodiversity due to its abundance of endemic species radiations, well-studied limnological history, and importance as a food source for local communities. The top predators in the lake’s pelagic zone, four endemic Lates fishes (Lates stappersii, L. mariae, L. microlepis, L. angustifrons), have declined in recent years due to environmental and anthropogenic pressures. These species are key components of the LT ecosystem, yet little is known about their evolutionary history. By linking genomic studies of their evolutionary and demographic histories to data from sediment cores that document environmental changes over LT’s 9-12 million-year history, we can use these fish as a model for understanding the interplay between population dynamics, environmental change, and diversification. Here, I propose first steps toward this goal, collecting specimens and genomic data to estimate current population structure and effective population size for each Lates species, which will enable my further research into their evolutionary histories and a broader investigation into the evolution of LT’s pelagic community and its responses to environmental change.



2015 Grant Recipients

Liz Mandeville

Liz is pursuing a Ph.D in Dr. Alex Buerkle’s Lab

Summary of Liz’s proposal and her research

The ecological context for hybridization and the maintenance of species diversity in Catostomus fishes

Interspecific hybridization is common in nature, especially following species introductions that bring closely related species into secondary contact. In some cases, hybridization could cause biodiversity loss if two related species collapse back into a single lineage. My previous work has shown extreme heterogeneity in genomic outcomes of secondary contact and hybridization between native and introduced Catostomus fish species across different rivers in the Upper Colorado River basin. These heterogeneous outcomes of secondary contact represent variable threats to native fish biodiversity. It is unclear why different outcomes of hybridization occur when the same species come into contact in different locations. One possible cause is that ecological factors (e.g., habitat, food availability) might differ across rivers. To better understand ecological relationships, I will compare hybrid diets to parental diets using stable isotopes. This will reveal to what extent hybrids compete with their parents for resources. To determine whether hybrids are more or less ecologically successful than their parents, I will calculate body condition metrics for all fish. By combining genetic, isotopic, and fish body condition data, I will improve our understanding of how hybridization among Catostomusspecies is likely to affect persistence of native fish biodiversity in Wyoming and Colorado.


Charlotte Gabrielsen

Charlotte is pursuing a Ph.D in Dr. Melanie Murphy’s Lab

Summary of Charlotte’s proposal and her research

Biodiversity in the Context of Climate Change:

Implications of Altered Wetland Ephemerality in Prairie Wetlands

Climate change, a major landscape stressor, is predicted to substantially alter ecosystem characteristics. In semi-arid regions where water availability is a crucial concern, wetlands constitute a critical ecosystem component. Using a combination of field observations and remotely sensed data, I will study the Plains and Prairie Pothole Region (“PPPR”), a highly productive wetland and grassland ecosystem threatened by climate change and rapid energy development. By using field observations to train remotely sensed data, I will classify wetland ephemerality – the persistence of wetlands across the growing season – under a range of climatic conditions representing potential changes to temperature and precipitation (amount and timing). Given the important role that microbes play in nutrient cycling, as well as the habitat that wetlands provide for amphibian breeding, projected climate change effects are predicted to threaten critical wetland functions. Accordingly, I will use environmental DNA (eDNA) assays from water samples to estimate current amphibian and microbial diversity across the PPPR. By relating these measures to projected ephemerality and water quality, I will link biodiversity to a range of future climate projections. Furthermore, by combining field observations, remote sensing, and modeling, this research provides a foundation for large-scale, cost-effective wetland monitoring and conservation.


Taylor Crow

Taylor is pursuing a Ph.D. in Dr. Kristina Hufford’s Lab

Summary of Taylor’s proposal and research

Alternative methods for delineating seed transfer zones: comparisons of genetic and common garden data 

Ecological restoration requires the establishment of self-sustaining plant communities from seed for wildlife habitat, ecosystem services, and conservation of genetic resources. The geographic origin of seed sources is an important factor for revegetation success, as local seed sources are better adapted to regional environmental conditions. Restoration practitioners use seed transfer zones to ensure that seed sources are adapted to specific restoration sites; however, few species have been studied in depth to produce seed source guidelines. I propose to compare traditional and novel techniques used to create seed transfer zones for the keystone rocky mountain shrub Cercocarpus montanus,true mountain mahogany.


Lisa Barrett

Lisa is pursuing a Ph.D. in Dr. Sarah Benson-Amram’s Lab

Summary of Lisa’s proposal and research

Comparing Captive and Wild Asian Elephant Personality and Problem Solving

Human-induced, rapid environmental change threatens the existence of a diversity of species. Species vary in their response to such change, allowing some species to thrive while others decline. Problem-solving tasks reveal interspecific and intraspecific variation in behavioral flexibility to environmental change, and individual variation in novel task interaction may be related to the individual’s behavioral type, or personality. The endangered Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) suffers from habitat loss and human-elephant conflict. For example, some elephants have learned to exploit farmland through crop raiding. This behavior is considered risky, because it often results in elephant and human deaths. The continued decline of the elephant, a keystone species, would result in a substantial loss of biodiversity. The proposed comparative study will contribute to our understanding of personality, cognition, and the subsequent impact on conservation4 in Asian elephants. Results from this study could determine which individuals are more likely to engage in crop raiding and could lead to development of early intervention to reduce its spread. Additionally, this work will determine whether captive research is ecologically relevant for elephants and will elucidate intraspecific variance in behavioral flexibility.


Doug Eddy

Doug is pursuing a Masters in Dr. Matt Carling’s Lab

Summary of Doug’s proposal and research

Testing models of energy cost and trade-offs for avian malaria in a high elevation passerine

Taken separately, both mounting an immune response and maintaining internal body heat during very cold conditions incur large energetic costs. What remains unclear in avian physiology is the nature of the response in terms of metabolic output and whether or not these dual costs can be bared by a small passerine with a chronic parasite infection. I propose to test physiological costs to high elevation resident Dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis spp.) that are infected with avian malaria (Plasmodium spp.) against non-infected individuals to assess the costs and tradeoffs associated with thermogenesis and immune response. The findings of my study will increase our understanding of impacts to native populations as avian malaria and similar diseases are likely to spread under most future climate change projections.


2014 Grant Recipients 

Anne-Marie Hodge

Ph.D.  Graduate Student
Jake Goheen Lab

From Mesopredator Release to Invasive Cacti: Can Large Carnivores Bolster Range Quality by Suppressing Plant Invasions? 

Project Summary: Opuntia stricta, an invasive New World cactus, is spreading throughout the rangelands of central Kenya to the detriment of rangeland quality and native biodiversity. Olive baboons (Papio anubis) disperse Opuntia and exhibit peaks in abundance following declines in populations of large carnivores (i.e., mesopredator release). Together, these dynamics create the potential for declines in large carnivores to reverberate through lower trophic levels and facilitate the spread of Opuntia. Through my work, I will answer the following questions about the role of carnivore-baboon interactions in the spread of Opuntia: 1) Are baboon abundances higher on properties with lower densities of large carnivores (e.g., leopards, lions, and African wild dogs)? and 2) Does the presence of large carnivores sufficiently offset dispersal of Opuntia to outweigh financial losses incurred from livestock depredation? My study will provide foundational information about the spread of this invasive plant and its ecological relationship with baboons, large carnivores, local mammalian biodiversity, and ranching economies in Laikipia, Kenya.


Jason Carlisle

Ph.D.  Graduate Student
Anna Calfoun Lab

Non-Target Effects of Umbrella Species Conservation and the Secret Life of Fledgling Songbirds

Project Summary: Surrogate species conservation, where conservation action directed at one species also indirectly benefits others, holds promise as a fruitful frontier in biodiversity conservation.  Surrogate approaches (e.g., umbrella, keystone, and flagship) provide appealing conceptual shortcuts that extend conservation benefit to previously neglected species (Caro 2010).  One form, the umbrella species strategy, entails creating and managing reserve areas to meet the conservation needs of one species (umbrella species) with the assumption that doing so will indirectly meet the needs of co-occurring species also in need of attention (background species).  While targeted conservation actions (e.g., local habitat treatments) conducted for the umbrella species are assumed to benefit background species, this assumption is rarely assessed, and may be unfounded due to species-specific ecological requirements.  Moreover, the fitness consequences of managing background species under umbrellas are very rarely assessed yet are critical for understanding actual habitat quality and population persistence.  My goal is to fill this critical gap in our understanding and application of the umbrella species concept by using controlled field experiments to assess how habitat improvement actions taken to benefit a high-profile American umbrella species (Greater Sage-Grouse) affect the demography and reproductive fitness of declining background species (sagebrush-dependent songbirds) across multiple life stages.


Carolyn Eckrich

Ph.D. Graduate Student
Merav Ben-David Lab

The role of spatially explicit bottom-up and top-down processes in the dynamics of small mammal populations in Southeast Alaska

Project Summary: The relative importance of bottom-up and top-down processes in the regulation of animal populations has been a major focus of debate. Understanding the role of these regulation mechanisms is especially relevant because of the effects of anthropogenic disturbance and climate change. Small mammals play key roles in a variety of ecosystem functions, making them an important guild for studying these regulation mechanisms. I propose to investigate the 5-6 year small mammal population cycles in Southeast Alaska (SE AK). Studies of small mammals in SE AK found correlations between abundance and understory biomass. Concurrently, prey availability explained most of the variation in predator density. This suggests that both processes may be regulating prey populations in this region. Using a combination of empirical data and modeling I will explore the contribution of each process to the dynamics of predators and prey on Prince of Wales Island. My empirical data include abundance and vital rates of small mammals from capture-recapture data and naïve densities of predators, diet estimates from stable isotope analysis, and habitat characteristics derived from sampling and remote sensing. I will use mathematical modeling to assess the relation between small mammals and habitat features, as well as to model predator-prey cycles. 


Kurt Smith

Ph.D. Graduate Student
Jeffery Beck Lab

Identification of Lek Sites for Columbian Sharp-Tailed Grouse in South-Central Wyoming

Project Summary: Understanding how human land use influences populations and habitat of terrestrial animals is increasingly important for species biodiversity conservation, especially for species of conservation concern. The Columbian sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus columbianus) has been petitioned for listing twice under the Endangered Species Act, and is considered a species of greatest conservation concern in Wyoming. In Wyoming, Columbian sharp-tailed grouse are found only in portions of southwest Carbon County. Anthropogenic land change in this region may have significant consequences to other avian species, including the greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus). Unfortunately, little is known about the status of the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse population in Carbon County, Wyoming. Therefore, my proposed research seeks to identify anthropogenic and environmental factors that influence lek site selection of Columbian sharp-tailed grouse to identify areas that have a high probability of lek occurrence and to potentially locate previously undocumented leks. This research could lead to a better understanding of population status, ecology, and potential impacts of habitat alterations on Columbian sharp-tailed grouse in south-central Wyoming.


Kyle Bochanski

Undergraduate Student
Rachel Watson, Adviser

Identifying Native Wyoming Plant Species for Uptake and Retention of Uranium from a Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act Site (UMTRCA) in Riverton, Wyoming

Project Summary: My proposed research project is to identify native Wyoming plant species that have the ability to up-concentrate uranium at high rates for the possible implementation of bioremediation at a Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act Site (UMTRCA) in Riverton, Wyoming. The bioremediary process used is phytofiltration which is the use of plants to naturally absorb and retain contaminants in a water source. While many studies have been completed on phytofiltration of heavy metals such as arsenic, few studies have been done on uranium-contaminated water. In order to complete this experiment, ground water samples as well as dirt samples will be taken from the UMTRCA Site and baseline tested for levels of uranium. The plant species of interest will then be grown in the contaminated soils and sampled for changes in uranium concentration over the course of the summer. A post-baseline test of uranium concentrations in the soil will then be taken. The plant with the highest rate of uranium uptake will be proposed as a candidate for use in the bioremediation of the UMTRCA Site. It is expected that Callitriche hermaphroditica L. or Callitriche palustris L. will have the highest uranium up-concentration.


2013 Grant Recipients 

Caroline C. Ng’weno

PHD Graduate Student
Jake Goheen Lab

Project:  Spatial Dynamics of Predator-Prey Interactions and Livestock production in a Semi-Arid Rangeland

In recent years, there has been growing recognition that livestock production and wildlife conservation can be compatible. Consequently, there has been a shift in attitude from that of maximum, short-term production to one of long-term sustainability. While Large Mammalian Herbivores (LMH) have been extirpated throughout much of the globe, sub-Saharan Africa still houses a staggering abundance and diversity of these species. Thus, the long-term conservation of savanna ecosystems hinges on understanding the interactions between wild and domestic ungulates, and how these interactions can be managed to enhance LMH diversity alongside human livelihoods over the long-term. On the Laikipia Plateau of Kenya, a recent analysis revealed that numbers of both cattle (the most common species of domestic ungulate) and plains zebra (the most common LMH) were limited almost entirely by rainfall. By contrast, the majority of other LMH have experienced marked declines over the past 15 years, coincident with a growing tolerance for large carnivores by ranchers. Through my research, I will develop strategies to meld two ostensibly disparate goals-wildlife conservation and livestock production. I will evaluate how controlled grazing of livestock can be managed to bolster the diversity of rare LMH in human-occupied savannas.

Victoria Zero

PHD Graduate Student
Landscape Genetics & Spatial Ecology Lab

Project: Effects of Ecosystem Engineering on Amphibian Diversity across Wetland Stress Gradients

Ecosystem engineers are key to the maintenance of ecological function and may be critical in maintaining amphibian populations, which are indicators of overall wetland biodiversity. I propose to test the effect of an ecosystem engineer (beaver) along an environmental gradient and on related changes in amphibian distributions. With the presence-absence data obtained from visual surveys and environmental DNA analyses, I will use occupancy modeling to identify the factors determining amphibian distributions. This project will also inform management activities by determining if beaver are an effective surrogate species for the conservation of native amphibians and wetland ecosystems as a whole.


Morgan Alexander Ford

Invertebrate Zoology Program

Project: Assessing the impacts of mosquito control on non-target invertebrates in Spring Creek, Wyoming

Since 2003, the city of Laramie, Wyoming and many other cities in the western U.S. have implemented mosquito control programs to stem the threat of West Nile Virus. In Laramie, control is achieved through the use of two primary insecticides; Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis (Bti), a bacterium that targets larval mosquitos, and Permethrin, an insecticide known to act as a neurotoxin to most invertebrates. In 2006, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) relaxed a regulation that stipulated Permethrin must not be applied within 100 feet of an open water source (EPA, 2009), thereby allowing the city of Laramie to apply the insecticide directly to the Spring Creek drainage. While not a specific target, the stream receives significant over-spray during the application process (Keith Wardlaw, Mosquito Control Crew Supervisor, personal communication). Because Permethrin is extremely toxic to aquatic fauna, the chemical over-spray may disrupt aquatic invertebrate and fish populations in the stream. Our objective is to explore the impacts of Bti and Permethrin on the resident non-target invertebrates of Spring Creek in Laramie, Wyoming.  Understanding how mosquito control affects aquatic life may lead to enhanced management of resources in the future.


Jessica Ann Dugan

PHD Student
Department of Zoology and Physiology

Project: Biodiversity Research Grant: Approaches for Enhancing Fish Biodiversity in Prairie Streams

Prairie streams harbor a large part of the freshwater biodiversity in Wyoming, but these systems are often extensively altered by human activities (Thorburn 1993; Patton et al. 1998). In response, management and conservation agencies utilize habitat improvements to conserve valued fishes, especially coldwater game species (e.g., trout) (Hotch 2009). Assessment of influences of habitat improvement techniques on fishes has been limited to a relatively few species, mainly salmonids, and monitoring of other species, as well as, entire fish communities is scarce (Binns 2004; Roni et al. 2008). A comprehensive evaluation of how habitat improvement techniques influence particular species (e.g., nongame, non-salmonid species) is needed to identify the types of management actions that will be most beneficial for preserving freshwater biodiversity. In addition, determination of how habitat improvement techniques influence interactions between different species at trophic levels is essential to understand how biodiversity is affected. The results of my research will aid scientists and managers charged with the conservation of biodiversity in stream ecosystems. The results of my research will also be of interest to the non-scientific community that supported the restoration project within my study area, and I plan to share my results with those invested groups.