California State University, Long Beach
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CSULB Prof Receives NSF Grant to Study Visual Ecology of Birds

CSULB received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for $164,995 to continue its study of the evolution of visual systems in birds.

The two-year grant, titled “The effects of the trade-off between visual acuity and visual fields on anti-predator behavior in social foraging birds,” will be overseen by Esteban Fernandez-Juricic, an assistant professor of biological sciences at CSULB.

“This is a grant that requires us to involve students from underrepresented minorities in science and what the NSF does is support the faculty for two years to gather information in a new field and then submit another grant proposal to the same agency,” said Fernandez-Juricic, noting that this support helps him continue his on-going research. "For the type of research I do, this is a considerable amount of money, so I am very pleased.”

The project will study how both visual acuity (how far away a bird can see) and the extent of the visual fields (the area around a bird’s head from which it can see) affect anti-predator behavioral responses in flocks using four bird species as models -- house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus), house sparrow (Passer domesticus), brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater), and European starling (Sturnus vulgaris).

Two predictions will be tested throughout the study. First, species with relatively wide and less acute vision will spend less time vigilant (in head-up postures) than species with relatively narrow and more acute vision due to greater visual coverage. Second, predator detection in species with relatively wide and less acute vision will be limited by the distance to the predator due to their reduced depth of vision; whereas in species with relatively narrow visual fields and more acute vision, predator detection will be limited by body posture and head-orientation due to their more constrained visual coverage.

One goal of the study is to enhance the understanding of the mechanisms involved in anti-predator behavior (such as detecting a flock mate flushing from a predator) in species with different visual systems, which may have influenced the evolution of vision in passerine birds.In addition, this research project is highly interdisciplinary because it brings together laboratory work to characterize the visual system of birds and then animal behavior experiments conducted in semi-natural conditions to test how animals can detect visual stimuli of ecological relevance.  The new knowledge gained from this project will then be communicated to the scientific community through peer-reviewed journals and meetings, involving graduate and undergraduate students as coauthors, and to lay audiences through non-technical publications.

Along with the involvement of minority students, new lecture and lab modules will be developed on the evolution of avian sensory systems, outreach seminars will be given at high schools to show the similarities and differences between human and avian vision and how these affect behavior, and a Web page will be created emphasizing the relevance of inter-disciplinary research in sensory biology to understand the evolution of visual systems.

The grant will help support two undergraduate, one graduate and two area high school students involved in the research, as well as purchase software.