WHAT DO WE STUDY?
My lab takes an integrative approach in understanding animal-habitat interactions in a changing world. We are particularly interested in the effects of urban development and human activity on native wildlife. We answer questions regarding if animals can respond appropriately, how they accomplish this, and why some are better than others at dealing with rapid environmental change. We use community science (also called citizen science), field studies of wild populations, and laboratory work to quantify phenotypic and genetic responses. Overall, output from the lab has the promising potential to inform the conservation and management of wildlife in human-dominated habitats.
Reptile Responses to Human-Induced Environmental Change
We live in the Anthropocene, an epoch in which humans affect nearly all ecological processes on Earth. A major focus on my lab’s research is understanding how native reptiles respond to environmental changes caused by humans and whether reptiles are evolving traits to more effectively survive and reproduce in anthropogenic habitats. Reptiles have important roles in ecosystems worldwide, yet their responses to human-induced habitat change have not been as comprehensively studied as those of mammals and birds. However, unlike mammals and birds, most reptiles cannot easily move away from disturbances, forcing them to adapt or perish when changes do occur. I work in two major systems: (1) the effects of urbanization on lizards and snakes in Southern California
and (2) the effects of human land use on water anoles in Costa Rica. In Southern California, I have been comparing the disparate responses to urbanization among various lizard species, trying to understand why some are better than others at dealing with urban development. My research in Costa Rica has been part of the Organization for Tropical Studies REU for Underrepresented Minority Students and in collaboration with Dr. Lindsey Swierk at SUNY Binghamton.
Several non-native lizard species have been introduced to Southern California, including anoles, geckos, whiptail lizards, and Italian wall lizards. Although many of these species are common invasives in other parts of the world, we have little to no data on their
Ecology of Invasive Lizards in Southern California
ecologies within Southern California. We lack basic information on how they use the habitat, how they interact with other species (including predators, prey, competitors, and parasites), and whether they threaten our native ecological communities. My lab aims to fill these data gaps. Information produced from our research could be crucial for conservation efforts in the region as we occur within a global biodiversity hotpot that contains endemic species found nowhere else in the world.
Use of Community Science in Ecological Research
Studying wildlife in urban areas is tough because much of the land is private property and therefore inaccessible to scientists. A way to overcome this barrier is by partnering with members of the general public to collect or analyze scientific data (often called community science or citizen science). My lab advocates for the broad use of iNaturalist, a community science platform, by scientists and community members. I am lead organizer for the City Nature Challenge: Inland Empire, an annual spring event that encourages the use of iNaturalist. I also use community science-generated data to answer ecological questions that would otherwise be near impossible to address. I have used these data to study predation and parasitism of secretive species in urban habitats, and one of my students, Emily Urquidi, is quantifying the hunting behaviors of rattlesnakes through community science observations. Much of this work has been in collaboration with the Dr. Greg Pauly and the Urban Nature Research Center at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.
Evidence Syntheses for Animal Conservation
I am part of a working group of scientists that is using evidence syntheses (meta-analyses, systematic reviews) to address wildlife conservation issues. My lab uses these syntheses to understand animal responses to human-induced environmental change on the global scale and the effectiveness of conservation interventions. We also aim to expand the use of these methods and provide suggestions for future use by other researchers.
Rattlesnake-Ground Squirrel Interactions
For my PhD, I worked with Dr. Rulon Clark at SDSU and Dr. Richard Coss at UC Davis to study the relationship between rattlesnakes and ground squirrels. By working with this well-established system, I addressed several outstanding questions in the predator-prey literature. Specifically, I tested the function of antipredator signaling through two novel methods: collecting data on free-ranging predator responses to prey behavior, and experimental manipulation of free-ranging prey signals. I used innovative technology, such as wireless internet security cameras to record snake hunting behavior and developed creative techniques to simulate snake strikes on wild squirrels. This work also produced some of the first quantitative reports on the foraging behavior of rattlesnakes, important predators in many American ecosystems. Because rattlesnakes are considered nuisance animals, my research on understanding their behaviors, such as the timing of activity and movements, could help reduce human-snake conflict. I am no longer actively conducting research in this system. However, I intend to initiate some projects looking at rattlesnake foraging ecology in urbanizing habitats.