Biology breakthroughs gain global attention

Biology breakthroughs gain global attention

Every summer for the past 35 years, Biology Professor Charles Brown has packed his bags and headed north for a research excursion in the remote plains near Ogallala, Nebraska. The mission: to collect data on cliff swallows. His three decades of work are widely respected as some of the most extensive investigations into animal coloniality. Brown’s papers have been published in multiple research journals internationally, and he is among a long list of TU faculty who travel or collaborate coast-to-coast for research of global interest.

Charles Brown

In addition to Nebraska, Brown has observed cliff swallows in Oklahoma, Texas and North Dakota. In the 1980s, he traveled to Arizona to study violet green swallows. Further west, Brown is a consultant for the historic Mission San Juan Capistrano in California where large colonies of cliff swallows began nesting on the property in the 1700s. After the birds’ habitat began to disappear in the 1990s, the mission sought Brown’s expertise to reestablish a cliff swallow colony. The city holds a Swallows Day festival every year in March to celebrate the legend of the birds’ annual return to San Juan Capistrano from Argentina.

“It’s a great forum to promote the birds every year,” Brown said. “When I go out there, national media are swarming. It’s a platform to promote conservation of the species.”

To analyze the data he collects each summer in Nebraska, Brown works closely with statisticians in Canada and North Dakota. His long-term ecological studies involving disease, social behavior and demography are instrumental in identifying environmental threats to cliff swallows.

In 2013, Brown’s research on natural selection in cliff swallows was published in the journal Current Biology and earned him a segment on the National Public Radio show Science Friday. The findings of how birds can rapidly evolve to avoid new urban threats (such as cars on a highway) reached countries as far away as Germany and Ireland and made headlines in Science, Nature and USA Today.

“I counted 450 different media stories from the roadkill research alone,” Brown said. “The story was very accessible to a lot of people and attracted wide interest.”

Other areas of his research include a partnership with TU colleague Warren Booth, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Science. Booth lends his knowledge of invasive species, specifically bed bugs, to Brown’s research of cliff swallow parasites.

While currently collaborating on bed bug research with biologists in the Czech Republic, Booth also is known internationally for parthenogenesis research he began as a post-doc. In 2010, he documented reproduction in an unfertilized female snake sample. The research was widely accepted among biologists and led to follow-up studies in other species of snakes. Booth’s lab has performed parthenogenesis studies on king cobras from Holland, multiple types of domestic rattlesnakes, python and anaconda samples from the United Kingdom’s West Midland Safari Park, komodo dragons from zoos in Texas and water snakes from Missouri, North Carolina and Georgia. He assigns the work to undergraduates for once- in-a-lifetime laboratory experience.

“It’s more beneficial for the students to do the DNA extraction, sequencing and analysis,” Booth said. “Parthenogenesis is such a small part of what our lab does, but it’s received media attention worldwide. For undergrads to do this kind of work, put their names on the research paper and receive credit, is phenomenal.”

snakesIn 2014, Booth published a review paper in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society about the same parthenogenesis concept but in a different species of snake. The paper was accessed online 35,000 times and is the highest ranked document in the journal’s history. Its popularity garnered Booth the role of parthenogenesis consultant for the BBC, and ABC Australia featured his research in a 2015 episode of the science show Catalyst.

“It’s good for TU,” Booth said. “The university is being recognized across the globe. I receive 50 or 60 e-mails a day just from people interested in learning more or from prospective students who want to attend TU for the research.”