Heather Watts: Environmental cues and the timing of annual schedules in birds

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Heather Watts is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biology at Loyola Marymount University. She got her undergraduate degree from Duke and her PhD from Michigan State where she worked with Kay Holekamp on integrative biology of hyenas. Dr. Watts has published in Animal Behavior, Animal Conservation, Current Biology, and Proceedings of the Royal Society, among other journals. She will be discussing how appropriate timing of life history events (e.g., reproduction and migration) coincide with suitable environmental conditions, with important consequences for the survival of organisms. Many animals use environmental cues to time these events. Although photoperiod is the best studied of such environmental cues, animals may also use other cues including temperature, rainfall, food availability, and social behavior. Dr. Watts’ research in this area currently focuses on understanding (1) the use of non-photoperiodic cues in reproductive timing, and (2) the timing of facultative (i.e. optional) migration (funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation). Dr. Watts and her lab’s work takes both a proximate approach (e.g., what are the mechanisms by which environmental cues influence physiology and behavior?) and an ultimate approach (e.g., how do timing mechanisms vary across species, and how has this evolved?). Songbirds are an excellent system for this research, and Dr. Watts has focused on finches, like the pine siskin in the photo, to address these questions.