Raising the ‘barr’

Sycamore lands a research fellowship through the National Science Foundation and helps scientists learn more about barred owls.

Indiana State Honors student Esther Perisho, ’18, knows more about the barred owl than most college students — thanks to her research experiences at the California Academy of Science last summer.

It was a conversation with her advisor about getting a leg up on graduate school that prompted Perisho to apply for a Research Experience for Undergraduates through the National Science Foundation’s website. Research Experience for Undergraduates is a paid undergraduate research fellowships that allows students to gain real-world experience in their respective fields.

“A lot of subjects within the field of biology interest me, but my passion lies within conservation biology and so I focused on institutions that offered conservation research projects,” Perisho said. “After a month of writing application essays and applying to 10 different places, I got accepted into the California Academy of Sciences.”

The opportunity at the California Academy of Sciences, a natural history museum and a renowned scientific and educational institution in San Francisco, allowed Perisho to conduct research on the size, shape and structure of barred owls collected in California. They are lighter in color and varied in size compared to barred owl on the eastern side of the United States.

The barred owl is traditionally an eastern species, but in recent decades they have expanded their range west across Canada and into northern California. This intrepid bird competes with the California native northern spotted owl for resources — a battle that the barred owl is apparently winning.

“In order to determine if the barred owl was affecting northern spotted owl populations my advisor Jack Dumbacher proposed a rather controversial experiment, which was to selectively remove barred owls from previously northern spotted owl habitats,” Perisho said. “Evidence showed that after the barred owl was removed from previously occupied northern spotted owl habitats, the northern spotted owl actually moved back in, so we do understand that this barred owl is playing a role in this species’ decline.”

As barred owls collected from the experiment accumulated within the museum’s collections, ornithology and mammalogy curator Jack Dumbacher noticed an unusual trend. Some of the western owls were darker, or more strangely patterned than their eastern counterparts.

At her adviser’s urging, Esther Perisho applied for a Research Experience for Undergraduates through the National Science Foundation’s website.

Perisho’s research was to investigate the morphological variation in the barred owls that were collected. She discovered there are differences between color and belly pattern between the two populations. Although she investigated size, there was no difference. Now that they know if there is morphological variation, they can specifically investigate genetic causes.

“We wanted to know if the difference between these eastern and western populations was quantifiable,” Perisho said. “If so, then it is possible that the barred owl has experienced a genetic change during its expansion into California. It may explain why the bird did such a good job at invading northern spotted owl territories.”

Dumbacher previously worked at the Smithsonian before he started employment with California Academy of Sciences, becoming the chairman and curator of the academy’s department of ornithology and mammalogy. Dumbacher is best known for discovering that the feathers of the Pitohui, which is indigenous to Papua New Guinea, are toxic.

Perisho isn’t Dumbacher’s first association with Indiana State, though. Dumbacher had a connection with the late Elaina Tuttle, who was a biology professor at Indiana State before her death in 2016.

“Dumbacher was a graduate student while Elaina and I were at the University of Chicago, and now he has graduate faculty status here at Indiana State and is an external member of the graduate students committee,” said usty Gonser, biology professor and director of the Center for Genomic Advocacy.

Perisho’s research experience is exactly what Dumbacher hopes for all students who conduct research experiences with him.

“Every student is unique, as is every project. The hope is that we can match students with projects that will interest them and teach them skills that will be useful in their own professional development,” Dumbacher said. “Esther did well with her project, and she is an excellent communicator. Her final report and presentation were well received.”

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