Practicing good science through meaningful projects

Welcome to the Parsons Lab for Behavioral Ecology and Conservation

Thanks for your interest in working in our lab. Undergraduate and post-graduate students working with me have a variety of interests related to Behavioral Ecology and Conservation Behavior. The common thread that underpins most of our research is a desire to practice good science through meaningful projects. Though, to be honest, we often tackle projects that just seem really ‘cool’ (check out the blog on squirrel communication, elephant recognition and cotton-top tamarin gossip!). Despite the fun we will have (that’s a promise), we aim to “practice while doing” science. Sometimes this is called ‘trial and error’, while other times this is referred to colloquially as the ‘blood, sweat and tears’ approach.

Will you learn more, and contribute more to science, when everything goes as planned?

Or, will your learning be enhanced when you are mentored through a series of obstacles that you thought could not be overcome?

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(All Photos above contributed by MS Candidate Prameek Kanan, January 2014)

Our research outcomes are worth the efforts that we will go to. Along with your peers, we will contribute to conservation, improved animal management and welfare to species across the globe. We aren’t restricted to working with any particular taxa; rather (with the help of colleagues around the world) we are using the comparative method to test theories that apply to multiple target species subjected to similar selective pressures. We have particular interests in  chemical-mediated Social Transmission (communication and learning), Optimal Foraging, Games Theory and especially the Ecology of Fear– a primal motivator.

You will undertake descriptive, observational and experimental approaches and routinely utilize focal sampling, scan sampling or ad libitum approaches as you develop an experimental approaches to address a single testable hypothesis that is identified as a ‘gap’ in the literature. We  also utilize exclosure designs, commonly referred to as graze down exclosures, cafeteria trials to lure animals under continuous monitoring, and BACI (before-after/control-impact) trials when examining environmental impacts.

We set up well-replicated, rigorous designs that can be generalized as broadly as possible to maximize the impact of the research hypothesis and communication of findings— preferably through the peer reviewed literature.

There is an old saying “if it isnt published, it didnt happen”, this could well be our lab’s motto.

Where would you like to start? See below for some ideas from a few of our high-achieving students.

Student Opportunities

Thanks to our collaborators and sponsors, students in the US and abroad will have opportunities to undertake fieldwork through our lab.  Students who are free to travel in the Summer, will have an opportunity to apply for training at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. Other students may wish to take advantage of our partnerships to train on Mainland Australia or Tasmania. More adventurous students may wish to work in Ladakh, India, a serene and remote community unlike no other place on Earth. Ask me how to apply for funding to partly, or completely, cover these costs. In some cases stipends are also available!

Current Projects

We are currently recruiting students into the following projects.

In Hobart, Tasmania, you could be collaborating with Drs. Anke Frank and Elissa Cameron to work with pademelons and brush tailed possums. You would be helping to deconstruct the ‘silent language of scents’, with the intention of better understanding marsupial responses to scents from predators and conspecifics. Reverse engineering this information is critical if we are to eventually ‘speak to animals on their own terms’ and for their own good.

If you love wild horses, you are in luck. The western kiang subspecies (Equus kiang kiang) found in Ladakh, India is classified as ‘data deficient’ by the IUCN (Shah, 2008), and is among the least studied animals in the world (Sharma, 2004). The ecological role of kiang has not been thoroughly investigated, until now. You will work with our partners Ronald Sarno (Hofstra) and Prameek Kanan (Pace University) to determine the impact of this native species on the environment.

We welcome avian studies in our lab and work closely with the Cornell lab of Ornithology to enable students to address questions related to conservation of NTMBs and managament of invasive species, or species that have reached pest status. Most recently we have used the ring billed gull as a model.

Additionally we are looking to follow up on an intriguing paper from almost 50 years ago. French crows would not respond to American raptor calls, but they would respond to French raptors (same species). We have better technology now (digital calls and full spectrum speakers) and we think it would be interesting to find out whether American crows respond to French raptors. There are benefits to this study on several levels.

Or, we are open to hearing your ideas. If you have a proposal you would like me to vet, please contact me at

Dr. Michael Parsons, Michael.Parsons@ESC.edu.

Meanwhile please see some of our current students.

Selective herbivory by kiang (Equus kiang): grazing impacts, nutritional catalysts and inferences about competition with livestock

In collaboration with Ron Sarno, of Hofstra and Pace University, Master’s Candidate Prameek Kanan is setting up paired exclosures to quantify the impact of selective herbivory in the high elevation, cold desert of Ladakh, India.

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Can Targeted Education influence Movements of American Black Bears that Co-occur around Campsites?

In a collaboration with Pace University, Master’s Candidate Katie Fox will examine whether targeted education might influence the range and movements of black bears that forage near campsites in the Catskills, NY.  We will ask whether citizen participation and adaptive management regimes will improve the welfare and management of  bears and lead to improved experiences for the campers.

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Delayed Habituation and Fear Conditioning to Stimulus

Why do animal deterrents rarely seem to work for very long? With the help of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Caitlin Lecker has been working on the additive effects of laser lights and bioacoustics (alarm calls) to influence the behavior of Ring billed gulls (Larus delawarensis) near Lake Champlain, NY.  Caitlin has learned that gulls react to a type of green laser light more so than red, and that the effects are additive when both cues are combined. Over time, it appears the gulls became sensitized (fear conditioned) to multimodal, but not unimodal, cues. Caitlin has submitted her work for peer review to the Journal of Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology.

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The responses of mule deer to biologically meaningful sounds and scents  

Do some animals eavesdrop on the communication of other species? Mr. Scott Flanagan will be our lab’s first nominee to undertake fieldwork at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. Along with collaborator Dan Blumstein (UCLA) , Scott intends to investigate how mule deer (Odocoileus hemionuson) eavesdrop on alarm calls from small co-occurring species (sciurids, rodents). Scott will be looking at the influence of alarm calls in isolation, and in conjunction with recently voided (active) predator scents, on the deer’s behavior.  Of particular interest will be a comparison between habituated deer close to town and those in remote areas.

Hersheys, nuts, anchovies and beer (and rats?!)

Are Norway rats (Rattus noregicus) really adapted to shadow human settlements?  Local students wishing to explore Urban Ecology (in conjunction with Ron Sarno, Hofstra) can participate in one of the few studies of free-ranging rat behavior in NYC. Here, we are broadly interested in food selection among alternatives, vigilance, stress indicators and disease transmission.

Along with Melissa Grigione, Pace University, we are interested in using Cafeteria Trials and paired exclosures to look at selective herbivory (choosing plants, or plant stands, from among many alternatives), self-medication (including plant metabolites that make animals ‘high’) and social transmission (intra-species communication regarding the whereabouts of food sources and predators) in a variety of taxa.

In conjunction with Trish Fleming Murdoch University, we are working to prolong the dramatic response of western grey kangaroos (Macropus fuliginosis) to recently voided urine from the top order predator, the dingo (Canis dingo). We are among the first to propose a Northern/Southern hemisphere approach to study anti-predator behavior and trophic cascades involving Macropods and Artiodactyls. Students wishing to undertake field work in Australia will examine the influence of various fear cues on Optimal Foraging decisions, time to habituation, and social transmission. North American students will use similar approaches to study artiodactyl behavior.

Chemical ecology and the degredation of natural scents over time

Can animals ascertain the difference between a newly voided and aged urine mark? Along with collaborators Ken Dods, WA Chemistry Centre and Dave Kiemle, SUNY Environmental School of Forestry , we are seeking to understand which chemical constituents are more likely to result in the startle response (Dods), and we are also looking at which chemicals dissipate during the degredation of the scent (Kiemle). A synthetic tool (pictured below) is being developed as the first tool to help influence macropod behavior and managment.

Animal welfare and policy

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STUDENT PRESENTATIONS!

Students, as we all do, have an obligation to communicate the results of scientific projects at academic conferences. Students may wish to first present their work at the Student Academic Conference (STAC) as a warm up for a possible disciplinary venue. Presenting at the STAC conference is free, while limited funds may be available to support travel and accomodations to scientific conferences.

Interested in joining our  community and/or proposing your own project? Please contact me directly.

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