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Undergraduate Researchers

Oliver Muellerklein

Oliver Muellerklein, Biological Sciences

“Spatial Dynamics and Territory Estimation for Grasshopper Sparrows (Ammodramus savannarum): a Mathematical Model”

Understanding territoriality and the population structure of individuals within a given area in a dynamic way is an essential tool in animal ecology research. Our research focuses on a comparison of the changes in size, accuracy, and statistical variance of territories using two techniques: minimum convex polygons and kernel density estimations. The data were taken from GPS waypoints of Grasshopper Sparrows (Ammodramus savannarum) at the Chester River Field Research Station, Chestertown, MD during the 2003 – 2012 breeding seasons. Based on a sample of 25 songbirds, we found average territory estimates and major sources of reduction in variance at varying intervals of GPS waypoints for both these techniques. To account for within-season movements in territory, we applied a novel dynamic time window algorithm that computes minimum convex polygons at fixed time frames throughout the entire breeding season for each individual songbird. Our research coincides with a major conservation effort in establishing proper breeding area for a potential reintroduction of the critically endangered Florida subspecies of Grasshopper Sparrows (Ammodramus savannarium floridanus). Habitats in both Maryland and Florida are similar, so what we learn for Maryland birds may have direct applications in estimating necessary space for reintroduction efforts in Florida.

This work was funded, in part, by the Chester River Field Research Center, and the UMBC Department of Biological Sciences.

What research experiences have you had?

I have worked with Dr. Bernard Lohr for the past two years. In summer 2012 I worked at the Chester River Field Station in Chestertown, Maryland, where we collect songbird data. When I returned to campus for this academic year, Dr. Lohr asked me to start an individual project on territory estimation in our songbirds, after I expressed my interest in computational methods. This project has grown into a large-scale study where I am the primary contributor. I presented this research at the 125th Annual Wilson Ornithological Society Conference in March and won the Nancy Klamm Best Undergraduate Student Poster Award.

How did you find the research opportunity?

I originally found out about this research through a friend, Aymen Hussein, who worked with Dr. Lohr the summer before. I had already gained invaluable experience working in both Dr. Leips’ lab and assisting in PhD student Michael Martin’s research (Dr. Mendelson’s lab) during the course of the previous year. I wanted to broaden my experiences to try and find where exactly my interests were in research. Dr. Lohr’s research on song analysis in Grasshopper Sparrows captured my interest.

Who did you work with on this project?

Dr. Lohr and I have had a number of discussions on the overall goal of my project. Initially, he gave me the research problem of how to efficiently calculate territories of individual Grasshopper Sparrows at various intervals of GPS waypoints. After this initial question, I contributed to the majority of the research direction while Dr. Lohr helped me fine tune it. Pavan Vutukur, the research technician in our lab, worked extensively with me on much of the program design and function in our MATLAB script.

Was this your first independent research project?

Yes, this was my first independent research project.

Do you get course credit for this work? Paid? How much time do you put into it?

I received two academic credits per semester plus a paid summer of research (which included housing and transportation). Generally, I have spent 10 to 12 hours a week doing research while over the summer I worked in the field (at the Chester River Field Station, Chestertown, MD) between 35 and 40 hours a week.

What academic background did you have before you started?

I did not have much of an academic background in mathematical modeling, programing, or experimental design before starting my research. I have learned an amazing amount in all three of these subjects by working on my project.

How did you learn what you needed to know to be successful in this lab?

To be successful, I had to constantly work hard and be extremely responsible. If you do these two things, almost all professors, graduate students, and research technicians will gladly guide and teach you.

What was the hardest part about your research?

The hardest part about my research has been hitting dead-ends with the design of the project. There has been so many times that I have tried various methods and had them fail. It is extremely frustrating and disappointing to spend weeks working on a new method of your research and then have it fail or yield insignificant results. But, that is the beauty of scientific research! We, as researchers, have a job to venture down every conceivable path of our research in order to find what works, what does not, and what makes no sense to do. That is how we learn, that is how we discover, and that is how we further our scientific understanding of the world.

How does this research experience relate to your work in other classes?

When I took the senior-level Animal Behavior course, we learned a lot about the effect of dynamic habitats on behavior. As long with previous classes on evolution (like Ecology and Evolution), we also learned about the effects of sexual selection on behavior. These are all things that I have seen firsthand with my research and experience in the field. Also, I have utilized knowledge of algorithms and mathematics from a variety of computer science and math courses that I have taken.

What is your advice to other students about getting involved in research?

I highly encourage every student to get involved with research no matter what major or program they are in. I have learned more doing research than I ever would have imagined. It has been the greatest experience of my life.

What are your career goals?

I plan to pursue a PhD, Post-Doc, and continue to do computational animal behavior research for the rest of my life. I have also thought about potentially pursuing a professor position one day.

What are you doing next for research?

I just got accepted into a three month long field study in the Amazon starting in June. So, I will be heading down to Peru in June!

What else are you involved in on campus?

Besides school and research, I love to play the piano. I compose a lot of music on the piano in my free time.