South Professor Receives Grant to Study Migratory Birds
Posted on September 27, 2023
Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Jonathan Pérez has been awarded a $478,878 grant from the National Science Foundation for research focusing on how the brains of songbirds use environmental information to time seasonal migration. His project is “Determining the Neural Mechanisms Regulating Photo-stimulation of Migratory Physiology and Behavior.”
“Migratory birds are particularly susceptible to environmental change since they move through multiple habitats each year,” Pérez said. “They must time migratory journeys in the absence of direct knowledge of environmental conditions at their destination, relying on seasonal cues, such as seasonal change in day length, photoperiod or timed departure. However, very little is known about the pathways in the brain that process photoperiod information into complex changes in physiology and behavior that are necessary for migration.”
Pérez, a Virginia native, found his passion for biology in the fifth grade when his teacher took students on bird-watching expeditions. Pérez earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at Amherst College in Massachusetts and a Ph.D. in Animal Behavior at the University of California, Davis. He completed his postdoctoral work through a collaborative project at the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh in Scotland, before accepting a position in the Department of Biology at South.
“Migratory birds are a good litmus test for environmental problems because they are more at risk than resident species,” Pérez said. “Increasing our understanding of how they make decisions to move from one area to the next will aid our ability to identify possible solutions to the environmental changes that might make birds more susceptible to negative impacts.”
External funding is a key component of Pérez’s research. This grant is part of a National Science Foundation initiative that brings resources to non-research-intensive universities and colleges. Awards are designed to provide resources that initiate and build independent research programs.
“This opportunity was a perfect fit,” Pérez said. “This program is aimed at building a research infrastructure at primarily undergraduate universities, while also expanding access to STEM research experiences for students. We hope this project launches the migratory research side of our lab, which has been limited in scope, until now, because of the resources necessary to carry out complex research on migratory physiology.”
Funds from the grant will allow the biology department to purchase a cryostat machine. The machine allows tissue samples to be studied in their freshest states by keeping them frozen rather than being stored in formaldehyde solutions.
“The project will allow us to develop modules for courses used to teach students practical skills,” Pérez said. “The grant will open doors to new, exciting paths forward in understanding the neural mechanisms behind migratory timing and physiology and provide a critical expansion of our lab’s research capacity while simultaneously allowing us to address longstanding questions about how migratory behavior and physiology is timed and controlled in the brain.”
In addition to research enhancements, the grant will also provide opportunities for students.
“This grant will provide several levels of opportunity for students,” Pérez said. “We will be able to have at least two graduate-level assistantships. We will have room for paid undergraduate positions and directed study opportunities for undergraduate students. We will also have undergraduate researchers on this project, which will allow students at any level of their degree to participate in the project. Students could start as early as their first year and work through the entire course of the grant.”
Biological studies, like those being conducted by Pérez, help community leaders and managers make informed decisions when it comes to the health and safety of migratory birds in relation to the environment.
“There are multiple layers with any environmental question, from a conservation standpoint, birds are incredibly important to the Gulf Coast,” he said. “We are one of the major migratory flyways, and birds come through our area every year. Increasing our understanding of how migration is controlled and timed, we give us a better understanding of how birds are going to respond to environmental changes.”
Students can major or minor in biology. The B.S. program can be customized to satisfy many areas of study, equipping students with the knowledge and skills needed to be competitive for a wide range of post-undergraduate opportunities. The Department of Biology also offers a Master of Science program. Learn more at SouthAlabama.edu/Biology
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