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The Wright Lab :: New Mexico State University


Wright Lab Fall 2015Top R-L: Emily Phillips, Grace Smith Vidaurre, Justin Apodaca, Angela Medina Garcia, and Elise Boyd.   Bottom R-L: Marcelo Araya Salas, Alexa Martinez, Tim Wright and Brian Ramos.  Missing are Aldo Ramirez and Jodie Jawor.   Photo by Daisy Scroggs.
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Lab Head
Tim F WrightDr. Timothy F. Wright
Principal Investigator (CV PDF)
(575) 646-1136
Ph.D.: University of California San Diego
B.A. Dartmouth College
Post-doctoral work: University of Maryland, Smithsonian Institution

Research Interests

Evolution of vocal learning and communication signals
Research statement...

I am broadly interested in the evolution of vocal learning and communication signals. Much of my work has focused on the parrots because of their well-developed learning abilities and the interesting contrasts they pose in behavior, ecology, and life history patterns to the better-known songbirds.  Early work focused on describing vocal repertoires in selected parrot species and investigating patterns of geographic variation known as vocal dialects. Of particular interest was the contrast between patterns of vocal variation among populations, driven by cultural evolution, and patterns of genetic variation.

This work has included fieldwork on the yellow-naped amazon in Costa Rica and the thick-billed parrot Mexico. In the last five years I have taken a broader, comparative approach that includes extensive molecular work on the evolutionary relationships among parrots and the use of the resulting phylogenies to investigate questions regarding life history, longevity, and mitochondrial genome evolution.  Most recently, I have begun a collaborative project to examine the neural and endocrine mechanisms underlying vocal learning in adult and juvenile captive budgerigars. Finally, the serious conservation issues faced by parrots inform much of the work I do; my conservation actions include coordinating a multi-year education programs in Costa Rica, conducting surveys of genetic and vocal diversity of the endangered thick-billed parrot of Mexico, investigating patterns of invasion in the monk parakeet, and engaging in public outreach and education.

For a more detailed description of ongoing research programs see the Research Page.

For a complete list of publications and links to selected pdf files of papers see the Publications Page.

Selected Publications
Wright*, T.F., J.R. Eberhard*, E.A. Hobson, M.L. Avery & M.R. Russello. 2010. Behavioral flexibility and species invasions: the adaptive flexibility hypothesis. Ethology Ecology & Evolution. 22:393-404.      *both authors contributed equally to this work.

Guerra, J. E., J. Cruz-Nieto, S.G. Ortiz-Maciel & T.F. Wright. 2008. Geographic variation in the contact calls of the thick-billed parrot. Condor. 110:639-647.

Wright, T.F., E.E. Schirtzinger, T. Matsumoto, J.R. Eberhard, G.R. Graves, J.J. Sanchez, S. Capelli, H. Müller, J. Scharpegge, G.K. Chambers and R.C. Fleischer. 2008. A multi-locus molecular phylogeny of the parrots (Psittaciformes): Support for a Gondwanan origin during the Cretaceous. Molecular Biology and Evolution. 25:2141-2156.

Wright, T.F., C.R. Dahlin, A. Salinas-Melgoza. 2008. Stability and change in vocal dialects of the yellow-naped amazon. Animal Behaviour. 76:1017-1027.

Wright, T.F., A.M. Rodriguez & R.C. Fleischer. 2005. Vocal dialects, sex-biased dispersal and microsatellite population structure in the parrot Amazona auropalliata. Molecular Ecology. 14:1197-1205.

Wright, T.F., C.A. Toft , E. Enkerlin-Hoeflich, J. Gonzalez-Elizondo, M. Albornoz, A. Rodríguez-Ferraro, F. Rojas-Suárez, V. Sanz, A. Trujillo, S.R. Beissinger, V. Berovides A., X. Gálvez A., A.T. Brice, K. Joyner, J.R. Eberhard, J. Gilardi, S.E. Koenig, S. Stoleson, P. Martuscelli, J.M. Meyers, K. Renton, A. M. Rodríguez, A C. Sosa-Asanza, F.J. Vilella, & J.W. Wiley. 2001.  Nest poaching in Neotropical parrots. Conservation Biology. 15:710-720.

An article in Science News features our work on dialects in the yellow-naped amazon: Not Your Father's Song, by Susan Milius (Nov. 8, 2008).

Affiliate Scientist
anaYoungDr. Jodie Jawor
Undergraduate Researcher

Research statement...
My research interests lie in behavioral endocrinology which allows me to ask both proximate and ultimate questions regarding behaviors we see in non-human animals. My interests lie in asking questions about why (ultimate questions) a behavior is shown; what is the benefit to the individuals showing this behavior in terms of longevity or reproductive success? Then, how is the behavior facilitated (proximate questions) physiologically? I focus most strongly in the area of endocrinology and my work has focused most strongly on the steroid hormones (e.g., testosterone, corticosterone) and how these hormones impact behaviors such as aggression and parental care, or aspects of appearance that impact reproductive success, such as plumage coloration in birds. My past work has investigated the impacts of testosterone on aggressive behavior in female Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis); the impacts of testosterone on parental care in both sexes of Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis); and the function of multiple ornaments in both sexes of cardinals during intra- and inter-sexual interactions. While in the Wright lab I will be working on the impacts of corticosterone on vocal learning in adult Budgerigars (Melopsittacus undulates) as individuals navigate social situations (acquiring a new mate, joining a new flock); both of which can cause ‘stress’. The hormone corticosterone is one of the classic stress hormones and has been shown to have both negative and positive influences on learning, but all the steps in this process are not known and we hope to provide a better understanding of how this particular hormone functions in the process of learning.

Postdoctoral Researcher
Dr. Greg Kohn
(CV PDF), website
Postdoctoral Fellow

Ph.D. (Psychological and Brain Sciences) Indiana University, Bloomington, 2015
M.S. (Behavioral Neuroscience) Utrecht University, The Netherlands, Utrecht, 2009.
B.A. (Biology) University of Montana, Missoula, MT 2006

Research interests: social learning, vocal learning, behavioral development, social networks, neural mechanisms of social competence, social organization

Research statement...
In groups, individuals must share information and coordinate activities with conspecifics. Variation in the content and frequency of such social interactions will shape an individual’s development and fitness as well as the overall organization of the group. I am broadly interested in investigating the ontogeny of communicative and social traits needed to facilitate and sustain life within a group, and how variation in such traits shapes reproductive outcomes.
Within fission-fusion groups, individuals must adapt to changes in group size and composition. Such dynamics can select for the ability to flexibly adapt one’s social behavior in response to group changes. In some fission-fusion species, individuals learn contact calls from others in the group. Contact call learning may mediate social interactions across group changes, and allow individuals to signal affiliation across different social levels (from pairs to groups) and different individuals (from mates to novel individuals). My current project focuses on the mechanisms underlying contact call learning in Budgerigars (Melopsittacus undulatus), a species that exhibits lifelong contact call learning. In particular, I am investigating how differential gene expression of FOXP2 within the brain shapes vocal learning of contact calls and social integration of individuals into budgerigar flocks.
My previous work focused on the stability and flexibility of individual social behavior in Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater). Here I showed that females maintain enduring subgroups with familiar individuals across group changes, and that such subgroups are associated with development of consistent individual differences in social behavior shown in females. I also showed that variation in fall social behavior is predictive of the ontogeny of courtship skills in juvenile females, and predicts higher reproductive output in adult females during the spring.

Graduate Students

Angela Medina-Garcia
PhD student (CV PDF) Website
M.S. (Biology) Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio 2011. B.S. (Biology, with emphasis in Ecology) Universidad Central de Venezuela, Caracas, Venezuela 2005

Research Interests
: Cognition, vocal learning, sexual selection, stress coping, mate choice, long-term pair bonding.

Research statement...
An individual’s cognitive abilities are critical for gaining access to valuable resources. In socially monogamous birds with biparental care, choosing a male with high cognitive abilities might strongly influence the reproductive success of a female. However, the role of female mate choice in the evolution of cognitive skills is still poorly understood. I am currently assessing variation in cognitive skills in male budgerigars (Melopsittacus undulatus) in order to test whether female budgerigars choose males based on their cognitive abilities or other targets that reflect these abilities, such as song. I am also interested in the interplay between an individual’s ability to cope with stress, personality traits and cognitive skills. 

Brian Ramos Güivas
PhD student (CV PDF)
M.A. University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez 2013
B.S. University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez 1999

Research statement...
My interest in research is on applied behavior to conservation effort, focused in the reproduction aspect of monogamous bird species. I am also interested in outreach programs that may help conservation efforts. I previously studied the relation between pre-breeding behaviors and reproductive success in a monogamous species of parrot, the Puerto Rican parrot (Amazona vittata). For my PhD I will like to focus on the relation of parents nest attendance to reproductive success. I expect that my research will positively impact conservation efforts of endangered species of parrots by giving managers more accurate management tolls. By reducing the time of delisting of these endangered species. The importance of public education for the conservation effort of the Puerto Rican parrot is of great importance. The threat of nest poaching and illegal hunting may limit the recuperation effort. I will like to develop an outreach program that can impact all age classes with a minimum cost of operation.

Grace Smith Vidaurre
PhD student (CV PDF)
B.A. (Biology, Spanish),
Haverford College, PA, 2011

Research Interest: Genetic and epigenetic mechanisms underlying biological invasions, thermoregulatory and behavioral flexibility of successful invaders, psittacine invaders.

Research statement...
I'm currently using a widespread psittacine invader as a model to understand how species become successful biological invaders. Spread across three continents, monk parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus) populations provide opportunities to investigate divergent phenotypes and underlying genetic or epigenetic changes. Studies of parrot invaders can shed light on broad questions in evolutionary biology and ecology, including (but not limited to) which areas of the genome may be under selection during rapid adaptation to human-induced global change, how behavioral flexibility contributes to successful invasion, and how phenotypic plasticity in other traits, such as thermoregulation, might also facilitate invasion.

I'm generally interested in using bioinformatics approaches to address biological questions, and currently use R and UNIX for data management, visualization and analysis. My former lab mate Marcelo Araya Salas and I recently developed warbleR, an R package for streamlined acoustic analyses that is available on CRAN, GitHub and published as an application paper in Methods in Ecology and Evolution. If you're interested in the monk parakeet invasion research, check out my website for more information and code.

Dominique Hellmich
PhD student (CV PDF)

B.A. (Biology) Cornell University, 2015

Research Interests: Behavioral flexibility, avian cognition, factors contributing to psittacine invasion success, avian communication

Research statement...
My initiation into the Wright Lab began with a 3-week survey of Yellow-Naped Amazon dialects along the pacific coast of Nicaragua. Using additional data from 1995 and 2005 surveys of Costa Rica we hope to discover the extent of both geographic and temporal variation in YNA dialects across a large portion of their range. Currently I am performing a comparative analysis of new and existing dialects from all 2016 Nicaraguan and Costa Rican survey sites.

With my doctoral research I hope to investigate the factors contributing to the success of an invasive psittacine, the Monk Parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus). Specifically, I would like to determine whether this species adopts adaptive behavioral, personality, or cognitive traits that vary in their expression over the course of invasion and establishment. Previous study has revealed the benefits of behavioral or physiological flexibility in species invasions, but none have evaluated the potential for these benefits to fluctuate over time. With my research I hope to discover whether or not the invasion success of Monk Parakeets is due, in part, to an ability that allows them to alter the expression of certain personality traits and/or learning styles during different stages of invasion. Finally, I am interested in investigating the underlying genetic or epigenetic mechanisms that relate to an individual or population’s expression of adaptive behavioral flexibility.

Undergraduate Researchers
Please see Student Opportunities page and contact Dr. Wright if you are interested in working in the lab.
anaYoungJustin Apodaca
Undergraduate Researcher

Research statement...
I am an undergraduate student majoring in Biology and plan to graduate in the Spring of 2016. I began researching the genetics and behaviorism of ants (Pogonomyrmex rugosus) with Aldo Ramirez. My main focus is on the differences between rural and urban ant colonies. In the Wright lab, I have measured the effects of Creosote (Larrea tridentata) on the colonies foraging custom and diversity. I have also researched the heat tolerance of individual sites within the urban and rural ant colonies. I am currently investigating data on an Ethanol and learning sound analysis study done by Tawni Voyles on budgerigars (Melopsittacus undulatus).

anaYoungClara Hansen
Undergraduate Researcher

Research statement...
I am currently a NMSU HHMI student majoring in Biology. I plan to graduate in May of 2018 and attend veterinary school. In the Wright lab I am studying call sharing in the budgerigar (Melopsittacus undulates). I began in the Wright lab helping PhD student Angela-Medina- Garcia with her research in budgerigar cognitive ability and mate choice. I then, began my own research project where I wanted to find out whether male budgerigars have a preferred social partner when held in captivity. After discovering that most male budgerigars had one social partner they were strongly bonded to I became interested in how call sharing could potentially correlate with strength of affliliative behavior between two birds. Budgerigars are capable of vocal learning and sound imitation as adults. Adult budgerigars within a social group will develop shared contact calls through vocal learning. One hypothesis for the evolution of this ability is that shared vocalizations facilitate social interactions between group members. I am currently running experiments to test whether there is a correlation between number of contact call types and strength of affiliative behavior with groups of birds that are the same sex and will eventually test mixed groups.

Aldo F. Ramirez

NMSU HHMI Program- Research Scholar

Research statement...
I am a senior majoring in Biology, and my introduction to the Wright lab began with my enrollment of the guided research course (BIO 350) being offered during the spring semester of 2015, in which we conducted genetic and behavioral guided research on Pogonomyrmex rugosus Rough Harvester ant colonies. It was through that course that I met Dr. Wright and Grace, who are now my research mentors, and was offered the opportunity to work on a project over the summer. After having spent the summer starting a project that looked at differences in intra-specific aggression and genetic diversity/similarity between urban and rural P. rugosus colonies, I was accepted into the lab as NMSU Howard and Hughes Medical Research Scholar, were I would continue my research project to this day.

My research focus has been to analyze genetic diversity/similarity and aggression, within and between urban and rural P. rugosus colonies. Our goal is to see if there are any differences that show evidence of genetic bottlenecks following possible rural to urban invasion, and if so, are these genetic differences resulting in different levels of intraspecific aggression. I am currently in the last step of analyzing the data for this project, as well as getting it all down on paper for an undergraduate thesis. If you are interested in learning more about my project feel free to contact me at .

Lab Graduates

Alexa Martinez
NRCT Program

Currently Fish Biologist, USFWS

Dr. Marcelo Araya-Salas
PhD student (CV PDF) Website
Former PhD student, Currently Instructor at UCR and postdoctoral fellow at Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Emily Phillips
Former Undergraduate Researcher, Currently Post-Baccalaureate Researcher at Los Alamos National Labs

Cole Tobin
HHMI Research Scholar

Tawni Voyles
HHMI Research Scholar

Currently Lab Manager, Tung Lab, Anthropology, Duke University

Art Anaya
NRCT Program

Dr. Erina Hara

Former Postdoctoral Researcher
B.S. Indiana State University
M.S. Life Sciences, Indiana State University
Ph.D Chiba University (Japan) and Duke

Currently College Researcher, CUNY Medical School

anaYoungDr. Osceola Whitney
Postdoctoral Researcher
B.S. Lincoln University
PhD Florida State University
Postdoctoral experience: Duke University

Currently Assistant Professor, Neuroscience, City College of New York

Jemima Perez
Former NIH RISE Scholar


Patricia Duarte-Hash

Esteban Lucero
Former NIH BRAiN Scholar
Currently PhD student in Human Medical Genetics and Genomics at UCD-AMC

Dr. Elizabeth Hobson
Former PhD student.
Currently NIMBioS Postdoctoral Fellow

B.A. (Environmental Studies) McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada 2004

Darlene John
Former NIH-RISE Undergraduate Researcher.
Currently Postbacc research, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center

Research Interests:Social behavior and vocal recognition in monk parakeets

Dr. Alejandro Salinas Melgoza
Former PhD student
Now Investigador de Cátedras CONACYT, Universidad Autónoma de

Shannon Pease
Former HHMI-NMSU Research Scholar.

Current Position: Veterinary School, Oregon State University

Research Interests: Parrot conservation genetics

Dr. Erin Schirtzinger
Former PhD student.

Currently Research Scientist, Kansas State University

B.A. (Anthropology) University of Notre Dame
B.S. (Biological Sciences) University of Notre Dame

John Coffman
Former MS student.

Currently Research Scientist, The Nature Conservancy

Research Interests
: Response of desert bird communities to grassland restoration efforts

anaYoungDr. Anna Young
Former PhD student and
Postdoctoral Researcher. (CV PDF)
Currently Assistant Professor in Biology, and Director of the Zoo and Conservation Science Program, Otterbein University.
B.S. Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, University of Arizona

Breanne Cordier
Former Lab Technician

Dr. Christine Dahlin
Former Postdoctoral Researcher
and PhD Student.
Currently Assistant Professor of Biology, University of Pittsburgh Johnstown

B.S. SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry
M.S. Northern Arizona University
PhD New Mexico State University

Daniel Acosta
Former HHMI-NMSU Research Scholar.

Jennifer Currier
Former HHMI-NMSU Research Scholar.
M.S. Dartmouth College 2012

Jaime Guerra
Former NIH-RISE Undergraduate Researcher.

Former Undergraduate Research
Assistants at NMSU
Meghann Percy
Ana Berglund
Josh Criswell
Natalie Gomez
Ana Cadena
Elena Tsentas
Hugo Cobos
Amanda Zamora
Chelsea Hooper
Audrey Sager
Alban Estrada
Jorge Vargas Leiton
Tiffany MacIntosh
Holly Jones
Brenda Rubio
Danielle Robert
Ira Brown
Lauren Gonzales
Jessica Moore-Garcia
Matthew O'Dell
Shandean Jefferson
Afiwa Midambegbe
Diana Carilla
Patrick MacNamara
Dawn Charley
June Coughlan
Sarah Garcia

Lab Visitors
The Wright Lab welcomes short-term visits from graduate students and other academics who desire short-term training in sound analysis, genetic techniques or other areas of lab expertise.

Past visitors include:
Corina Castro
MS student, California State University, Fullerton

Andrius Pasukonis
MS student, Ecole Normale Superieure of Paris and Pierre et Marie Curie University.

Cristian Montes-Medina
MS student, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico