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February 3, 2014 — The American Society of Naturalists (ASN) has presented one of its highest honors, the E.O. Wilson Naturalist Award, to renowned ornithologist Craig Benkman, professor in the University of Wyoming Department of Zoology and Physiology, and the Robert B. Berry Distinguished Chair in Ecology.
The award recognizes mid-career investigators who have made significant contributions to the knowledge of a particular ecosystem or group of organisms. Special consideration is given to individuals whose research and writing illuminate principles of evolutionary biology and an enhanced aesthetic appreciation of natural history.
Benkman was cited for his decades of year-round field study, aviary experiments and quantitative syntheses that have produced an exceptional body of work on the ecology and coevolution of crossbills, conifer cones and other seed predators.
Benkman’s primary research focuses on the processes that have contributed to the adaptive radiation of crossbills. This is where species all deriving from a common ancestor have, over time, diversified into multiple species as a result of natural selection. His research is distinguished for demonstrating the importance of coevolution in this diversification.
To effectively conserve diversity and to provide opportunities for future evolution and diversification, Benkman says, there needs to be an understanding of the processes promoting diversity. He explains how the presence or absence of squirrels influences the diversity and geographic variation in the crossbill populations because squirrels both influence the evolution of pine cone structure and compete for seeds.
“In detailed work that rivals long-term field studies of the Galapagos finches, Craig’s studies have linked foraging behavior of crossbills to the population biology of birds and cones, to diversifying natural selection on beak and cone morphology, and to the rapid evolution of reproductive isolation,” his award nomination says.
Additionally, his investigations of the patchwork of sites with and without squirrels in the American West are considered among the best examples yet of a “geographic mosaic of coevolution.”
“This is an extraordinary honor for an extraordinary faculty member,” says Paula Lutz, dean of the UW College of Arts and Sciences. “Students who study under Dr. Benkman are fortunate to work with one of the pre-eminent scientists whose work informs our understanding of evolutionary biology.”
To date, Benkman is credited with 73 publications appearing in such journals as the American Naturalist, Nature, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Evolution, and Ecology. He has garnered more than $1.5 million in federal, state and private funds. His impacts on the fields of coevolution, behavioral ecology and ornithology have been immense, with nearly 2,800 total citations of his publications.
He has served as an editor for the ASN and has been active with the Society for the Study of Evolution and the Cooper Ornithological Society.
Benkman came to UW in 2004 from New Mexico State University, where he was a faculty member for 11 years. He received his doctorate from the State University of New York at Albany, a master’s degree from Northern Arizona University, and a bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley.
UW Professor Craig Benkman received the E.O. Wilson Naturalist Award. (UW Photo)