Hi everyone!

My name is Celine Carneiro and I am a MS student at the University of Florida's Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation.

My master's research is geared towards understanding population-level dynamics and genomic differentiation between two grasshopper sparrow subspecies: the migratory eastern grasshopper sparrow and the critically endangered resident Florida grasshopper sparrow.

Beyond my master's research I also participate in population genetics projects on other Florida endemic species such as the Florida bonneted bat, beach mouse, and Santa Fe cave crayfish.

AMA!

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Comments: 172 • Responses: 28  • Date: 

Diet_Goomy80 karma

Has the introduction of invasive snakes been a reason for their endangerment?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs81 karma

In the case of the FL grasshopper sparrow, I would say no. Habitat loss is the number one reason for their steep decline. The FL grasshopper sparrow is a habitat specialist and only occurs in a prairie habitat unique to Florida found just north of Lake Okeechobee. Over time, most of the prairie was converted into pasture to the point where now this habitat is severely restricted to a few public lands. This is a recipe for disaster when it comes to habitat specialists in general.

However, snakes are a bit of a challenge when it comes to preventing the grasshopper sparrow's continuing decline but from my experience these snakes are native. There are major efforts in the field that try to prevent any loss of an individual sparrow including setting up fences around nests to prevent predation and some snakes manage to get through.

snookslayer9918 karma

After habitat loss, fire ants are the biggest threat from what I've heard. They're actively treating the areas around nesting sights but it's an uphill battle because there's fire ants everywhere.

IFAS_WEC_AMAs30 karma

Indeed! Fire ants are definitely a more immediate threat.

the_adriator31 karma

I was scrolling too fast and read your title as “I am one of the most endangered birds on Earth.” I got really excited for a second! I wanted to see what the bird had to say! (Then I felt really, really dumb.)

So if the birds you study could get a message out to people of the internet, what do you think they’d want us to know?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs21 karma

Haha! What a way to inspire a question. A good one too.

I think they would want us to know they're a little desperate to be saved from the brink of extinction. So I imagine a sparrow might make a simple but effective message by posting "HELP PLEASE". Or maybe a life alert parody youtube video saying "help, I've fallen and I can't get up!"

billturner21 karma

What about these sparrows grabbed your attention and made you want to study them in particular? Was it how endangered they are?

Is a goal to find a way to help their numbers begin to grow again?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs33 karma

Great questions! When I first got the opportunity to work with the FL grasshopper sparrow I was working as a field technician and spent almost every day either observing or trying to find this bird in the largest expanse of FL dry prairie (an endemic habitat) in the state. After spending countless hours in the prairie and observing the grasshopper sparrow, it really shined a light on how diverse and awesome my home state is. I was fascinated with being in a place that was found nowhere else in the world and observing a bird that could only be found here. How endangered they are certainly played a role in why I want to study them but I also felt compelled to because they're a part of what makes Florida so cool.

The principal goal of my research is to try and understand what is going on at the population level at the molecular scale and hopefully inform biologists who can take that information and help get sparrow numbers up. I would love see their population grow again.

TheBigBadDuke12 karma

Did you know Jen Benson at Kissimmee Prairie?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs16 karma

I sure did. She was my boss at Kissimmee Prairie. I loved working for her. She was extremely passionate about the prairie and everything in it. Truly an inspirational woman.

reese8194419 karma

I hear a lot about declining bee populations as an issue. Is there a similar issue with birds or other insects? What do we lose when they disappear? How do they help the environment?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs24 karma

Grassland birds are experiencing an alarming decline and they have been for a while. A lot of their habitat is ideal for farming so it gets quickly converted to agricultural lands for row crops and pasture and drives out the species that don't adapt well to changes like that.

In an ecological sense, birds provide ecosystem services like seed dispersal, pollination, scavenging, or keeping prey populations in check. All of these services, in combination with the interactions they have with other species, are what makes the world go 'round. Dispersing seeds so plants can grow but also eating seeds so that there's not too much of one plant. Pollinating so that other wildlife can benefit from plants. Scavenging has been shown to prevent spreading disease. The list goes on.

Birds can provide services in a cultural sense too. Many tribes have birds as important symbols in their culture. In North America bird watching is a top outdoor recreational activity contributing approximately 80 billion dollars to the US economy and benefitting local economies worldwide.

BigCashRegister14 karma

This is less geared toward your work and more geared toward you: what is it like working in your position and how did you get there?

I’m a high schooler about to go to college and I want to get into this sort of field but am interested in the different pathways people can take.

IFAS_WEC_AMAs9 karma

As a grad student I spend a lot of time either in the lab or at my computer working with data or writing. In the lab I mainly extract DNA and prepare samples to be sequenced. Once I get my sequencing data back I spend pretty much all of my time analyzing and writing. During the fall and spring semesters studying and coursework get thrown into the mix.

I started getting involved in conservation my second year of college volunteering at an eastern indigo snake breeding facility and did that until I had to move to go to UF. At UF I networked and built professional relationships with professors which really opened the door to different opportunities. Besides that I was very tenacious about applying for internships and approaching grad students or professors that were doing things that I wanted to do and asked if they needed help.

I got into population genetics sort of unexpectedly through an internship I applied for. Essentially, the application wasn't geared towards a specific opportunity but was instead put into a pool that professors or grad students could chose from. So a PhD student chose me to help him with his genetics work and the rest is history. Since then I've continued to work with the lab and build my skills as a geneticist and ecologist.

Since you're just starting out, volunteer or apply for different opportunities and see what it is you like best! Once you get a feel for what you're passionate about you'll have an easier path to follow.

mrjackydees10 karma

Why does Google say this bird is "least concern" on the conservation spectrum?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs15 karma

Ah, great question! There are 12 recognized subspecies of grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum) 4 of which occur in North America. The Florida grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum floridanus) is one of those subspecies.

It's status as an individual subspecies is critically endangered and is federally protected. The grasshopper sparrow (A. savannarum) is considered least concern because the culmination of all 12 subspecies are numerous, although in general decline.

itsacalamity7 karma

Have you ever read "The Great Silence"? If not, you may really enjoy it

IFAS_WEC_AMAs5 karma

I haven't! Thanks for the recommendation!

CaringAndDaring6 karma

Do you think we'll be able to save the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow? How do you stay hopeful? And what do you think are the most important steps laypeople can take to protect wildlife in our area?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs5 karma

That's a difficult question to answer. I think there is still a lot that we don't know that could better inform us on the future FL grasshopper sparrow. However, I am hopeful because of the efforts of the field techs, biologists, volunteers, grad students, PIs, captive breeders, and anyone else that may be involved in protecting this species. Everyone puts in a tireless amount of work into the conservation efforts and they're constantly thinking of better ways to do it.

There are a lot of things folks can do to protect wildlife in their area so I'll just name a couple. A major one is keeping cats indoors or at least confined to where they can't hunt outside. I know that this can be a controversial topic but the data is irrefutable when it comes to impacts that cats have on wildlife. Another is to have native plants in your yard instead of ornamentals. Contributing even in small ways to state or local wildlife or plant organizations/agencies can be helpful too. Even if it's a small amount of money or if you spend a Saturday morning picking up trash. Lastly, and this one I feel most passionate about and I'm shocked every time I see people do it, don't litter!

kramerbooks6 karma

I live in central Florida, at least an hour or two from their habitat. Are there things the average homeowner in my area can do that would impact their survival?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs4 karma

Yes! While most of the efforts right now are focused on direct threats immediately surrounding the sparrows, the average homeowner can help stop perpetuating some of them. Doing things like removing invasive plants in your yard or killing red imported fire ants are small things that can help in the grand scheme. A major one is keeping pet cats indoors or at least confined in a space outside where they can be prevented from killing anything. They're a huge threat to wildlife globally. We would always freak out if we saw a cat in the same plot as a sparrow!

These actions can seem insignificant but they're important not only for the Florida grasshopper sparrow but for Florida wildlife in general. Two birds with one stone, so to speak.

guyinthecorner06 karma

This is probably a lot less related to other questions, but if I was interested in ornothology as a career, how might one go about starting that?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs3 karma

Well I didn't start studying birds until I became a grad student so I may not be the most qualified to give advice. But in general, speaking to the right people and applying for volunteer opportunities, internships, or tech jobs are all great ways to get your foot in the door.

In my experience, an academic environment really put me in the right place to be able to do the research I'm doing because it put me in contact with professionals who helped guide me and gave me the experience I needed.

__cflunity__6 karma

Hey Celine!

What is the difference in captive breeding between the Eastern and Florida grasshopper sparrow? Do they require different setups? Is the release program going to extend beyond 3 Lakes WMA in the future?

Has there been any movement in differentiating populations of Florida bonneted bats between their Northern and Southern ranges? Do you think that as more people continue searching for them acoustically, their range will continue to spread North?

Thanks!

IFAS_WEC_AMAs3 karma

Hey! Thank you for your questions. I'm not too familiar with the captive breeding process for either subspecies. The lab I work in does provide pedigree data so that the breeding facilities know who to pair with who but otherwise my research is focused on wild populations. I can't imagine that they would require different setups since the eastern occurs in dry prairie while they're migrating north.

The release program does intend to release birds in other areas besides Three Lakes. FWS has a 5-year strategy that you can find online and they're reasoning for choosing Three Lakes for the first year of releases was because of the larger population which may help with survival and reproduction.

As far as I'm aware there are no studies trying to differentiate bonneted bat populations. We have a lot to learn about them and so most of the research I've read is focused on basic ecology like sexual dimorphism and social organization. I think as we move forward and find efficient ways of finding/capturing them then there will be more research on population differentiation. To answer your second question, I haven't been able to work with these bats too much in the field so it's difficult for me to speak on the subject. Most of my work with the FL bonneted bat is spent in the lab and on the computer trying to understand mating strategies using molecular data. But that's an interesting question! Looks like I have some reading to do.

PM_ME_ANIMAL_FACTS5 karma

Hello Celine! I love seeing posts about conservation! I’m doing a degree in wildlife conservation myself and aim to be where you’re at one day!

On to my question, I’m sure that as a conservationist, you are well aware that spreading awareness of the endangered species you focus on is just as important as the research you carry out. So, how are you approaching the vital aspect of spreading awareness of these gorgeous subspecies of grasshopper sparrows?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs2 karma

Ah, that's a great question and, admittedly, spreading awareness is something I should do more of.

So far I've been able to give presentations to different organizations that are interested in what I do. Once things sort of calm down in the lab, I'd like to work with our extension office to find ways of reaching out to the public because that aspect of conservation is not my forte and it's something I'd like to get better at.

xmexme5 karma

Why are some populations seasonally migratory, while others are locally resident? Are the resident populations faring worse (e.g. Ecuador, Florida)? If so, why?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs2 karma

Your first question is one scientists are always trying to answer (including me)! I don't think there is a definitive answer as to "why" a bird migrates. There are things like resources or climate that push a bird to fly thousands a miles away but in the case of the grasshopper sparrow, that's what we want to figure out.

I'm very interested in understanding why the Florida grasshopper decides to stay and doesn't just migrate north with the eastern subspecies. One of my major questions for my thesis is what differentiates these two subspecies at the genomic level? Are we seeing selection at certain genes that keep residents where they are? There's a lot to investigate!

Resident populations are definitely suffering more. At least for the North American subspecies of grasshopper sparrow, the resident populations (Arizona and FL) seem to be habitat specialists and this can mean trouble when you have a lot of human development. Habitat specialists are already confined to a particular habitat type that they like. In the case of the FL subspecies they thrive in FL dry prairie. So when people started moving in and converting prairie to ag land, well the sparrows started dying off because they couldn't adapt to big changes like that. Hope that answers your questions!

cb1115555555 karma

When going out in the field how much of the time is spent sitting and waiting? Does it get boring or is it constantly pretty exciting? Thanks for doing this.

IFAS_WEC_AMAs5 karma

At the park that I worked at there was quite a bit of sitting and waiting when we were observing birds or trying to find nests. Kissimmee Prairie is the largest expanse of dry prairie left with very few birds so 95% of the time was spent speed walking from point to point trying to cover as much ground as possible.

It was always pretty exciting! Just being able to be out in the prairie and coming across a snake or a frog or a skunk kept things interesting. It's especially exciting when you find a sparrow because it's like finding gold. Thank you for your questions!

Modus_Opp4 karma

Wasn't there another florida sparrow. The dusky seaside sparrow or something like that... I remember it was the rarest bird when I was a child.

Is there any chance that's still alive?

Also is there a captive breeding programme in place for abybof the creatures you study?

Just curious.

IFAS_WEC_AMAs4 karma

Yes! The Perdido Key beach mouse has a captive breeding program.

TooMuchPretzels4 karma

I'm the child of an avid bird watcher and I have always had an interest in endangered/extinct species. Do you have any opinion on the possibility of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker still being extant? I know this is a bit off topic.

IFAS_WEC_AMAs5 karma

Ha! Man I really want it to be but I'm not so optimistic anymore. Seems like a hard bird to miss, you know?

FayreGentry3 karma

Hey Celine! As a marine bio major, I am at the stage of deciding if I should pursue a MS or a PhD. What drove your decision to get a MS? I'm considering a MS myself, mainly because I feel like obtaining a PhD will take far too long!

IFAS_WEC_AMAs5 karma

u/birdsbirdsbirdsbirds gave a great response. Tailor your short term goals to your long term goal.

I still intend to get a PhD after my master's but that was a personal choice. I wanted the master's experience because I felt it would prepare me for a PhD.

Cometstarlight2 karma

So you've studied grasshopper sparrow subspecies, bats, mice, and crayfish. That's pretty cool! Is there another species of animal you want to do a study on in the near future or are you focusing on these?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs2 karma

I really really really want to study African vultures in the future. I haven't picked a specific species because they're all so cool but that would be a dream.

unionidae2 karma

Do you have a backup plan for the possibility of not having enough data for your thesis due to limited number of individuals? Happened to two people I went to grad school with.

IFAS_WEC_AMAs1 karma

Fortunately we have enough samples for my thesis but I think that could be a very real possibility for future researchers wanting to ask some more complex questions.

Galdin3112 karma

How do you think the change in insect, microbial, and flora life in their native habitat have had in the past few years?

It's awesome what you are doing.

IFAS_WEC_AMAs1 karma

Thank you!

Well I think that the taxa you mentioned are doing better now than they were since humans first started developing dry prairie. Dry prairie really thrives off of frequent burns and it really suffered due to fire suppression early on. Now wildlife managers are making frequent fire a priority to this habitat and I can imagine that the insects, microbes, and flora are much better off despite the drastic habitat loss. I hope this answered your question!

DebunkedTheory2 karma

How did you get started in this field?

I have a relevant degree and the biggest trouble is everywhere expects one to pay to volunteer. I was seeking a hands on work experience preferably but all were asking for hundreds a week.

I have field experience, I've overseen research and I've lead projects and I've managed teams. I wouldn't mind working for lodgings/food costs, it's not about the wage. But paying to work leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

This has become a bit of shameless self promotion. Can I come work for you?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs1 karma

Before I started my master's I was working in the lab I'm in now as a bio sci. The summer before I started my field tech job working on the Florida grasshopper sparrow my boss (now advisor) asked if I wanted to do this project for my master's. So the opportunity to work with this bird sort of presented itself. However, every step before that was going to job boards like Texas A&M (where I applied for the sparrow field job) or USAJobs and applying, applying, applying. It sounds like you have a competitive resume and you'll eventually land something!

My field work is over and so the last year of my master's is going to be all genetics work and bioinformatics. But if you're interested in working with this sparrow keep an eye out on job boards for the tech position at the beginning of the year!

Kotruljevic14582 karma

Through your work, have you identified other subspecies that are approaching endangered status?

I don’t know much about the efficacy of wildlife conservation efforts but I’m assuming it may be easier to help a population earlier rather than later. I’m asking because I fear something like habitat loss may be irreversible for some popular regions of Florida underscoring the importance of impact studies before development is approved.

IFAS_WEC_AMAs1 karma

You're right to assume that! It's certainly much easier to help sooner rather than later. The grasshopper sparrow is a great example of what you're asking because the other subspecies of grasshopper sparrow aren't endangered but their populations are declining. Research on the Florida grasshopper sparrow can help inform management decisions in places where these other subspecies occur and vice versa.

tylertheuncreator951 karma

Hi,

I currently work as technician for a research organization looking at the population genetics of Swamp, Song, Seaside, Saltmarsh, and Nelson’s Sparrows and I am very interested in continuing work with avian population genetics in the future.

Could you give me a brief explanation of any trends that are apparent with regards to the genetics of these two populations? I’m guessing there isn’t a hybrid zone between the two populations as I believe the Eastern subspecies only winters in Florida, so you wouldn’t be able to look at any introgression between the two. Also if the two population do not interbreed, why hasn’t the species been split yet, couldn’t that possibly afford more governmental protections to the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow?

Finally, Do have any advice for looking for population genetics graduate programs? I’d be particularly interested in schools that can provide access to in-house sequencing machines, and so far the only school that I know with them is UNH.

IFAS_WEC_AMAs2 karma

That's awesome! Well we honestly don't know much about the genetics of these sparrows which makes genetics research on them all the more exciting.

While I don't suspect there to be a hybrid zone, we can certainly investigate the timing and extent of gene flow between the two subspecies. While we may not see signatures of recent gene flow, we may come across some historic gene flow. It's hard to say though because we really don't know much except for what we can observe in nature. Genetics can uncover things that we never expected! The FL grasshopper sparrow is already recognized as it's own subspecies and is federally protected.

I would say find a project that drives you and interests you. In-house sequencers are definitely useful but that shouldn't stop you from applying for a program with a really amazing project where you have to send your samples to get sequenced.

Bha4u1 karma

Hello. Thanks for the ama. Given the symbiotic relationship between birds and alligators, does the alligator population explosion inadvertently help the birds?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs1 karma

There are some important relationships between birds and alligators but as far as we know right now, there doesn't seem to be a relationship that would impact the sparrow's survival positively or negatively.

AlexatRF210 karma

What’s your favorite way to eat potatoes?

Mine is tater tots.

IFAS_WEC_AMAs7 karma

Oh man that's a tough question. I would say my potato preferences are cyclical so right now I'm really digging mashed potatoes.

jonbristow-5 karma

what are you gonna do when that bird dies?

IFAS_WEC_AMAs7 karma

I get asked this question often and it's probably one I should think about more.

I would be devastated to see the FL grasshopper sparrow become extinct but that wouldn't stop me from continuing research and working hard to prevent further extinctions of other species. There is a wealth of knowledge that we've acquired from this species that can be applied to others.