Alexander Gerson Studies Native Songbirds at Risk in a Warming Climate

When it’s 120 degrees in Phoenix, it’s not only planes that aren’t flying. Desert birds are also grounded—hunkered down in the shade until it cools off—but if they stay too long, they can weaken from dehydration and be unable to replenish their water. It’s a vicious cycle, one that UMass Amherst is collaborating with other universities to understand.

“The uniqueness of this collaboration arises from the way it combines climate mapping and geographic information with physiological data,” says Alexander Gerson, Assistant
Professor of Biology, who contributed his expertise in how birds handle thermal stress to the study.

Using land-surface modeling and hourly temperature maps, the team projected the potential effects of current and future heat waves on lethal dehydration in birds and how rapidly this can occur in species native to the Sonoran Desert. Their models revealed that increasing air temperatures and heat wave occurrences will potentially affect the water balance, daily activity patterns, and geographic distribution of arid-zone birds. Some regions of the desert could become uninhabitable for many species, and future high-temperature events could depopulate whole regions—as they have with mass avian die-offs occurring in Australia and South Africa.

Read more in the UMass News article

Postdoctoral Research Associate

The Adler Lab at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass, Amherst) seeks a Postdoctoral Research Associate to assess how floral, bee and network characteristics mediate bee disease transmission dynamics under the guidance and supervision of the Principle Investigator. This research is part of a larger NIH grant examining trait-mediated bee disease transmission, with collaborators at Cornell, NCSU, and UC Riverside. The appointee is expected to establish some independence in research design and execution, to publish her/his work as appropriate in collaboration with the principle investigator, and to be an engaged member of the lab. There is an opportunity to mentor undergraduates in related independent research, but this is not a position requirement.

This is a benefited, full-time Postdoctoral Research Associate position. Initial appointment is for one year; reappointment beyond the first year is contingent upon availability of funding and job performance. Funding is available for at least two years. Primary responsibilities will include, but are not limited to, selecting and preparing plant, bee and pathogen species for manipulative experiments and conducting research in field tents asking how network characteristics and floral and bee traits affect bee disease transmission. Research will require close contact with bees in tents and in field settings, and training lab personnel in various experimental techniques.

The successful candidate is required to have a Ph.D. in biology, entomology, ecology or related field by the time of hire. Highly desirable qualifications include experience conducting research in plant-pollinator interactions; experience with pollination networks, experience working with multiple bee, plant and pathogen species in field and/or lab settings, demonstrated record of publishing research in quality journals, expertise in R and statistical analysis, experience and/or strong interest in plant-insect interactions, and experience and/or interest in mentoring undergraduate research. Inquiries about the position can be directed to Lynn Adler,

Postdoctoral Research Associates at the University of Massachusetts are unionized and receive standard salary and benefits, depending on experience. Salary is subject to bargaining unit contract, with a salary minima of $47,476.

Candidates must apply online by submitting a cover letter, CV, summary of research interests, and the contact details of three references willing to provide letters of recommendation to:
Review of applications will begin October 3, 2017 and continue until the position is filled. Applications received by October 3, 2017 will be given priority consideration.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer of women, minorities, protected veterans, and individuals with disabilities and encourages applications from these and other protected group members. 

Peg Riley Joins Board of Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics

Biology professor Margaret Riley, an expert in the evolution of microbial resistance, is one of five new members of the board of directors of the Boston-based Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics (APUA). The appointments were announced in June.

Stuart B. Levy, APUA’s CEO, said, “Our new board members occupy the highest levels of academic research, medicine, biopharmaceuticals and veterinary science. Their areas of expertise harmonize to address the complexity of antimicrobial resistance. We welcome them.”

Riley says, “I am honored to be invited to serve on the board of directors for APUA, which was one of the very first organizations devoted to informing the public of the dangers of antibiotic overuse and abuse and has been a key player in efforts to extend the lifespan of these life-saving drugs.”

Read more in the Umass News and Media article

Evolutionary Biologist Craig Albertson Identifies Non-genetic Source of Species Variability

An unspoken frustration for evolutionary biologists over the past 100 years, says Craig Albertson at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is that genetics can only account for a small percentage of variation in the physical traits of organisms. Now he reports experimental results on how another factor, a “bizarre behavior” that is part of early cichlid fish larvae’s developmental environment, influences later variation in their craniofacial bones.

Albertson has studied African cichlid fish for 20 years as a model system for exploring how biodiversity originates and is maintained, with a focus on genetic contributions to species differences. In a new series of experiments with former Ph.D. student Yinan Hu, now a postdoctoral fellow at Boston College, they examined a “vigorous gaping” behavior in larval fish that starts immediately after the cartilaginous lower jaw forms and before bone deposition begins. Results appear in the current early online issue of Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

As Albertson explains, “We predicted that the baby fish are exercising their jaw muscles, which should impose forces on the bones they attach to, forces that might stimulate bone formation.” Albertson and Hu observed that gaping frequency, which could reach as high as 200 per minute, varied by species “in a way that foreshadows differences in bone deposition around processes critical for the action of jaw opening.”

Read more in the Royal Society Publishing article

Eco-Physiologist Alexander Gerson Receives $756,000 NSF Grant to Study How Birds Burn Stored Fat

Migrating birds complete long non-stop flights of many hours for songbirds and days for some shorebirds to reach breeding or wintering grounds. During such flights a bird's metabolic rate is very high, fueled by stored fat, but also by burning the protein in muscles and organs in a process that is not well understood, says eco-physiologist Alexander Gerson at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Now he has received a three-year, $756,000 National Science Foundation grant to thoroughly investigate the consequences and mechanisms of this phenomenon, which sometimes leads to dramatic reductions in migrating birds' muscle mass and organs but may not result in significant loss of function.

His research team will also look at water-loss rates in non-flight conditions, at rest, and look for differences among migrants and non-migrants. Further, Gerson and colleagues will conduct metabolic phenotyping and use transcriptomics to explore molecular mechanisms of protein breakdown and regeneration with UMass Amherst molecular biologists Courtney Babbitt and Larry Schwartz.

Read more in EurekAlert! article