Dr. Sharon Gill, assistant professor of biological sciences
by Helena Witzke
Dr. Sharon Gill, WMU assistant professor of biological sciences, is looking to the birds for answers to some nagging questions. How did social behaviors evolve in the natural world? Are humans, with our complex, long-lasting social relationships, unique? Not quite, it turns out.
“Humans are very social, living in families and extended families as well, but these types of social behaviors aren’t restricted to humans,” Gill writes. Recently, two of her papers were accepted by leading scientific journals— “Strategic use of allopreening in family-living wrens” was accepted by Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, and the Journal of Ornithology has accepted “Testing hypotheses for the evolution of long-term genetic monogamy in Neotropical buff-breasted wrens (Cantorchilus leucotis).”
The majority of Gill’s research is centered on the buff-breasted wren, a tropical species of bird which exhibits unique social patterns within its familial circle. Understanding how this species relates and forms social “rules” may be a clue as to how social behaviors evolve across the board.
Gill has had intensive experience working in Panama with buff-breasted wrens – research which has been facilitated by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. In Panama, she has focused on how families of buff-breasted wrens interact, the nature of behavior in reproductive partnerships, and (with graduate student Sarah Alessi and professor Dr. Maarten Vonhof, of biological sciences) the connections between social behavior and genetic structure of wren populations.
Despite the workload, Gill is enthusiastic about the rewards of working in the field. “When I started working on this species, next to nothing was known about its biology, and it’s been very exciting to learn new and unexpected things about them,” she writes.
Gill’s other major research questions investigate how birds and frogs alter behavior in response to changing environments, and interactions between host birds and brood parasites (birds that lay their eggs in the nests of other species).
Dr. Gill’s profile
Dr. Maarten Vonhof’s profile
Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology