FEATURED FACULTY MEMBER
DR. Liana Zanette
Every spring and summer, Dr. Liana Zanette, an Associate Professor in the Department of Biology, heads to B.C.’s Gulf Islands for a camping trip. It sounds idyllic: “we see porpoises, marbled murrelets, rhinoceros auklets, the occasional Orca” as Dr. Zanette and her students and collaborators travel from island to island in a small boat to conduct their studies on Song Sparrows.
Dr. Zanette has been working on the islands since she was a postdoc at the University of British Columbia, and has kept the study going since starting at Western in 2001. When asked why she continues to travel all that way to work on a bird found in her back yard, she has two answers. The flippant one is “I took one look at the beauty of the islands and I was hooked”, she laughs. But the islands, with relatively little permanent human presence, are also an ideal system for understanding the ecology of Song Sparrows, a common species which nevertheless face both natural and human-induced threats.
“On the islands cowbirds are a big predator” Dr. Zanette says, describing how cowbirds spread from the prairies (where they used to follow herds of bison) outwards as humans modified the landscape and introduced cattle. Cowbirds, which lay their eggs in the song sparrows’ nests, arrived on the islands in the 1960s, and are now a major cause of death for young song sparrows.
Dr. Zanette knows about the importance of cowbirds, because she has seen it happen – her team has a network of remote-operated video cameras which allows them to monitor up to 64 nests simultaneously. “We’ve watched a female cowbird arrive at the nest and systematically kill all the nestlings before laying her own eggs” says Zanette. The cameras have also revealed other predators, including garter snakes “who would have thought a thin little snake like that would eat something as big as a song sparrow chick?”
The idyllic life on the islands has a sinister flip side on Vancouver island, where a breeding site near Victoria revealed a very different suite of predators: “cats and rats” says Zanette, grimly. The population of song sparrows she studies near Victoria faces all sorts of threats caused by development and Dr. Zanette reels off an unfortunate sequence: “changes in groundwater mean the wetland is drying up, which means there are fewer aquatic insects for the birds to eat, the drier ground allows garden species to invade and that dries up the wetland further.” The cats, in particular, put the final nail in the coffin of a population that Dr. Zanette considers threatened with extinction. “I really like cats, but they are an invasive species that really threaten a lot of wildlife, particularly in urban areas”. Although domestic cats are a problem (“they should be kept inside”), the most dangerous culprit are the feral cats. “People need to realise that feeding feral cats is not a good idea – it keeps the predator densities unnaturally high, which is very bad news for the birds” says Dr. Zanette. People also inadvertently subsidise other predators, like rats and raccoons through their garbage, she notes.
Dr. Zanette and her collaborator Dr. Mike Clinchy are open to graduate students to work on a wide range of topics associated with the ecology and conservation biology of song sparrows and their habitat. You can read more about Dr. Zanette's research here and Dr. Clinchy's research here.
Questions for Dr. Zanette:
When I was growing up, I wanted ...I didn’t know what I wanted to do. When I was in university, at first I was going to continue in psychology (the human variety), but once I discovered animals (the non-human variety) and ecology, there was no turning back.
My favourite organism is...For me, one of the most amazing organisms on earth has got to be the echidna. Echidnas occur only in Australia and Papua New Guinea. They sort of look like porcupines because they are covered all over in quills that they use for defence. But that is where the similarity ends. Echidnas have a long snout and no teeth because they mainly eat ants and termites. Their feet look like they were put on backwards. And to top it all off, echidnas are marsupials, like kangaroos, which means that their young develop in pouches. But echidnas exceed kangaroos for weirdness because echidnas lay eggs in their pouches which eventually hatch! Pretty amazing for a mammal.
My first publication was about ...spatial memory in black-capped chickadees. Anybody who has a feeder in their backyard knows that chickadees will grab a seed and then go to a nearby tree (or even buildings) and store the seed in cracks, behind bark or in moss. That way they can quickly return to the feeder, grab another seed and store it somewhere else. The question is, how can a little bird brain remember the location of all of those seeds so that the bird can retrieve them at a later time? It seems impossible. But it turns out that chickadees have a huge area in their brains devoted to memory storage which allows them to use a variety of cues in the environment to help them recall the location of their caches. They are very smart birds.
My favourite piece of research was ...The research that I find most rewarding is when a cool question is asked and then a clever experiment is designed to answer it. Nothing beats a well executed experiment where the data collected are impeccable with lots of care and attention given to the details. This is what we strive for in my lab.
Biology at Western is ...Full of interesting people doing all sorts of interesting things. There is never a dull moment.
FEATURED STAFF MEMBER
Brenda Beretta is not the first person students see when they come to Western to study Biology. She doesn’t teach any classes, yet in her role as a counsellor, she probably influences as many students’ career paths as the very best professors. “I am open to meeting with students at any point, but the first year students start to roll in around intent to register” says Brenda, referring to the period when first year students must choose their direction for the rest of their degree.
On paper, Brenda’s job is to keep students on track, making sure that they have the courses they need to complete their degree. In practice, it extends well beyond that. “I think students find it easy to talk to me about their options” she says, “and that leads on to their other stresses too, which are usually related to their course options or career aspirations.” In Biology, that often involves students who believe that they must get into medical school, and to do so they must do Biology or Biomedical Sciences. “That’s a myth; they can do whatever they want” Brenda says, pointing out a recent story on Western News about a music graduate starting medicine at the Schulich School of Medicine. She says she often steers students to different degrees on the basis of their performance and marks: “if someone is getting 55 % in Biology and 85 % in Sociology, it is pretty obvious to me that they are in the wrong degree”. “I can’t tell them to do anything” she says, but one of the most satisfying parts of her job is receiving thank you notes or emails from students whose careers have panned out differently than they had imagined after talking to Brenda.
Brenda Beretta started studying while working in the Alumni office “I chose psychology because I couldn’t fit all the Biology labs in to my full time work schedule”, and moved to Biology while pursuing a diploma in Grief Counselling at King’s. “I didn’t finish that, because things got so busy here – but the skills are very useful”, a remark that isn’t entirely flippant.
One of the things Brenda really enjoys is the diversity of people and viewpoints, “it’s not just the students I interact with, but also the professors and people right up to the Registrar’s Office. The most surprising thing about this job is that people actually listen – even the professors!” she laughs.
Brenda Beretta’s office is in NCB 301, and she is available daily from 9:00 until 4:00 to discuss course choices and degree options with any undergraduate students thinking about taking Biology courses.
Questions for Brenda Beretta
When I was growing up, I wanted ...to run my grandpa's car dealership or be a nutritionist. Got married then kids and worked full time and worked towards my BA in Psychology
My favourite organism is ...my kids [editor’s note: a lot of people will be surprised to learn that the youthful Ms Beretta is a grandmother!]
The strangest thing I’ve seen in this job is ...some of the interesting "thank you" gifts that students have given me.
When I’m not at work, I also ...enjoy the kids, the garden babysitting the grandkids and baking. Music and books in my sunporch
The best thing about being in Biology is ...all the wonderful people that I have encountered from the students to the folks in the Dean's office. Also learning the science behind things I just wondered about.
LINKS TO PAST FEATURED FACULTY and STAFF
- Dr. Richard Gardiner and Elizabeth Myscich
- Dr. Chris Guglielmo and Ian Craig
- Dr. Beth MacDougall-Shackleton and Kim Loney
- Dr. Robert Cumming and Jacqui Griffin
- Dr. Irena Creed
- Dr. Amanda Moehring
- Dr. Brent Sinclair
- Dr. Jack Millar
- Dr. John Wiebe
- Dr. Brent Sinclair
- Dr. Greg Kelly
Check back to this page regularly as we will be highlighting news breaking research/awards by other members of our Biology Department. To find out about other research in our Department please follow the links to individual faculty web sites
This page was last updated on
April 8, 2011
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