Dr. Cameron Ghalambor engaging in field research.

Dr. Cameron Ghalambor engaging in field research.

At the 133rd annual meeting of the American Ornithologist Union (AOU) this past July, Professor Cameron Ghalambor was elected as a Fellow. Only 15 Fellows and 2 Honorary Fellows were inducted this year.

Fellows and Honorary Fellows are nominated and elected by their peers into one of the oldest professional scientific organizations in North America, and it reflects a professional lifetime of avian research.

Fellows in the AOU are “ornithologists who have made significant contributions to the advancement of scientific understanding of birds and to the promotion of a rigorous scientific basis for the conservation of birds.”

Ghalambor said, “It’s a real honor to be recognized by the AOU, because the AOU shaped my earliest experiences as a scientist.” The avian world is what brought him to science in the first place.

Many choose to study biology because they were raised on a farm, lived near wildlife, or had the opportunity for outdoor activity as a child. Not Dr. Ghalambor. Born and raised in suburban Los Angeles, his parents were not interested in outdoor recreational activities at all. Consequently, he didn’t have a lot of experience with the outdoors until college friends invited him to hike or camp.

Enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of California at Los Angeles, those friends told him that the Field Biology course was “an easy A.” Little did he know at the time that signing up for that class was a life-changing decision.

He explains, “During a field trip to Sequoia National Forest, my professor stopped and listened, then said ‘Do you hear that? That’s a Ruby Crowned Kinglet.’ He identified a bird by its song! You can do that?” All those times he had been camping outdoors with his friends, he had heard birds singing but didn’t realize you could actually identify a bird from sound alone.

Fascinated now by birds and their habitat, he enrolled in an Ornithology class and began to volunteer for field projects. One lucky semester he took a field course in Southern Mexico at the northern limit of the tropical rainforest. While traipsing about in the rainforest and observing the incredible biodiversity, he realized “This is it.” He had discovered his life’s work.

After earning his PhD at the University of Montana at Missoula, he came to the biology department at CSU as an Assistant Professor in 2003. Now, when teaching Biology students in his Ornithology class, he always tells them, “After this class, you’ll never go outside and see the world the same again.”

Ruby-crowned Kinglet. photo by Ken Schneider, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet. photo by Ken Schneider, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Birds are a great organism for scientific study. Ghalambor notes that there are always birds around us, and like humans, they are vocal, visual, active during the day, smart, and resourceful. You can observe them in their natural environments fairly easily, and there are numerous resources available because birdwatching is a very popular recreational activity.  For an entry into biology this is a very accessible organism for students, because they provide some of the best examples of biological topics ranging from physiology to behavior. In contrast, most mammals are small, nocturnal, not as easy to observe.

Ghalambor studies birds to help answer larger questions. He and his lab study how organisms adapt to different environments. He wants to understand the mechanisms that allow them to deal with changes in environment and to learn how quickly they deal with change. He says, “A lot of the questions I ask are basic science questions with eyes toward the conservation management context. I try to straddle both sides.”

Birds also inspired Ghalambor to ask the basic question of how organisms deal with rapidly changing environments. Indeed, birds around the world are literally acting as the “canaries in the coal mine” and providing some of the best-documented examples of how climate change is altering geographic distributions, the timing of breeding, and the spread of emerging diseases.

When faced with change, an organism could have a plastic response. In this case, individual genes in that organism turn on or off resulting in behavioral or physiological responses to that change. Then the question becomes, does that response slow, speed up, impede or facilitate adaptation? More generally, over time, as populations evolve, how do those plastic responses contribute to the evolutionary response?

Because all organisms exhibit both plastic and evolutionary response to changing environments, his work could have much broader impact with implications for resources that we harvest to the way bacteria rapidly evolve antibiotic resistance. Thus, his work provides insight into how to better deal with our capacity for evolutionary change

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