View video of manakin dance

McDonald Lab

Research focus

(jump to ecotourism/bird lodge recommendations)

My students, post-docs and I study behavioral and evolutionary ecology, using a combination of social network models (using R scripts and Mathematica™) and detailed behavioral studies of individually-marked individuals.  Current projects include social networks in manakins (with my post-doc Andrew Edelman), social networks as a tool for analyzing dominance relationships (with my post-doc Dai Shizuka). Less acrtive parts of my research program include molecular genetic techniques, matrix-based demographic modeling (mostly using Mathematica™), the role of the hippocampus (the part of the brain that mediates the processing of spatial memory) in the evolution of cooperative courtship in manakins, conservation genetics of the Wyoming pocket gopher (Thomomys clusius) and Oreohelix land snails, reticulate evolution in threatened native bluehead and flannelmouth suckers (fish in the genus Catostomus), black-footed ferret demography, and various aspects of the biology of Black Rosy-Finches, Leucosticte atrata, and Brown-capped Rosy-Finches, L. australis

I have become very interested in (obsessed with?) social network models -- for example, using a male's past social interactions to predict his eventual fate (five years later) in Long-tailed Manakins. With my post-doc, Dai Shizuka, I have also become interested in using social network approaches for the study of dominance relations -- their transitivity, stability and orderliness. 

My student Brandon Munk and I did a comparative study of hippocampal development (spatial memory processing) in four species of manakins -- Chiroxiphia linearis, Manacus candei, Pipra mentalis and Lepidothrix coronata.  Viva Emlen and Oring 1976!  Ecology really does drive weird variations in mating systems.

Current manakin projects include network models of sociality, an analysis of their buzz weent calls as dominance relations, and assessment of hippocampal volume (as a step in the development of acute mate choice and constraints favoring cooperation).  Past molecular projects include Boreal Owls, black bears, Burrowing Owls, Florida Scrub-Jays, and Long-tailed Manakins. My demographic interests focus on life history evolution, particularly in the context of social behavior. Demographic projects include stage-classified matrix population models for socially structured populations (e.g., cooperative breeders, where social status not age determines demographic performance), demonstration of actuarial senescence in bird populations, and the relationship between life history variation and mating systems (e.g., age of first reproduction and longevity in lek-mating birds), and long term demographic data from birds in East Africa.  I also conducted experimental presentations of taxidermic mounts in the zone of introgression between White-collared Manakins, Manacus candei, and Golden-collared manakins, M. vitellinus (the elegant animal photographed below left by Marie Read) near the Panamanian-Costa Rican border.  The rosy-finch and manakin studies integrate my diverse interests in mating systems, genetic structure, hybrid zones, evolutionary demography and conservation.


I love living in the least populated state in the nation (~ 0.5 million), at 7,200', in the high short-grass prairie, and at one of the most compelling biogeographic crossroads I have ever encountered. Laramie finally has a Thai restaurant, and Manu Chao has played in Denver twice recently! My only regrets are that Walter Anderson didn't paint a Long-tailed Manakin (though he did spend some time in Costa Rica ...), and that Junior Kimbrough died before I could see him live. 

Male Red-capped Manakin, Pipra mentalis near Aguila de Osa Lodge, Costa Rica ( Pipra has a medium-sized hippocampus (larger than Lepidothrix but smaller than, of course, Chiroxiphia).  Aguila de Osa Lodge is a great place to see many of the birds of SW Costa Rica. 

Support ecotourism in Latin America.  If you like birding or neotropical nature-watching, try Yacutinga Lodge near Iguazu Falls (Argentina, near the Brazilian and Paraguayan borders).  Owner Charlie Sandoval has a strong conservation ethic (and you can see several species of really cool manakins).

In Rio de Janeiro state, Brazil, I highly recommend REGUA Guapiaçu (  The Mata Atlantica is fabulous e a comida e a gente do Brasil são otimos. 

On the western slope of the Andes, in Ecuador, the Mindo Cloud Forest Conservation Foundation runs the Milpe sanctuary (about 2.5 hours from Quito on the bus), where one can see Machaeropterus deliciosus, Club-winged Manakins, do their wing-hum display, and the fab Masius chrysopterus, Golden-winged Manakins, do their zip-snap-waddle dance on a mossy log.

In SE Ecuador, near Zamora (an access point for Parque Nacional Podocarpus) Copalinga Lodge is a very moderately-priced, thoughtfully run lodge close to the national park.Good spot for Lepidothrix isidorei, Blue-rumped Manakin.

More photos of rosy-finch fieldwork

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