February 3, 2015

Sarah Saunders

Sarah Saunders

2014-2015 Doctoral Dissertation Fellow

Sarah Saunders found inspiration to study conservation biology from an unlikely source: a pigeon.

She remembers being captivated by the bird building a nest, a careful process that took more than an hour. The pigeon reminded her that each animal was an individual with a distinct personality and that animals share basic biological behaviors with humans.

Now a University of Minnesota Ph.D. candidate in Conservation Biology, Saunders is helping to conserve the Great Lakes piping plover, one of the most endangered shorebirds of North America. The bird nests on sand and cobble beaches along Lakes Michigan, Superior and Huron, and is endangered due to nest disturbance, predation, and habitat loss or degradation -- possibly due to climate change.  

Conservation of the bird has been successful: in 1986, there were 17 breeding pairs in the region, and today there are about 70 pairs. But despite successful recovery efforts, the population has yet to reach the federal recovery goal of 150 pairs. Through studying the genetics, behavior, breeding experience and demography of each bird, Saunders aims to understand the factors driving the survival and reproductive success of piping plovers. Her application of data to conserving piping plovers could inform future efforts to recover marked populations.

With the help of 20-year banding data, Saunders tackles complex questions in her dissertation. Almost every piping plover in the area has a unique mark that provides in-depth knowledge of each bird's history -- when it hatched, where it breeds each year, and how many young it produces. "Without this type of information, we wouldn't be able to know what impacts their survival, reproduction, and susceptibility to climate change," says Saunders, who knows each bird individually.  

She explores how parental age and experience influences a bird's yearly breeding success, or how many chicks a pair raise from hatching to fledging. Using banding data, she determined each bird's years of breeding experience, and length of time with a given mate and at a given nesting location. She found that female birds reproduced more successfully at a familiar nesting site. This shows how including site familiarity in recovery efforts -- through maintaining common breeding sites, lessening factors that cause females to relocate, and protecting early nests -- can help lessen threats to populations.

Another part of Saunders' research looks at whether traits are genetically inherited or environmentally determined to examine possible impacts of climate change on piping plovers. She discovered that certain traits, dispersal distance and timing of breeding, are determined by environmental effects. This finding suggests that piping plovers are vulnerable to global climate change in the long term, since environmental variation influences their survival by affecting their habitats and breeding sites.

Saunders also investigates the biotic and abiotic factors that influence an individual's survival during the first year of life and its recruitment into the breeding population. She found that adult survival was less likely with increased hurricane activity on the southeast Atlantic coast, where Great Lakes plovers go in the winter, and by higher populations of falcons that prey on other birds.

While growing up in Chicago, Saunders and her twin sister shared a love for biology, but took separate paths to pursue their passion.  While her sister wanted to be a vet, Saunders aspired to be a conservation biologist and work with imperiled populations. As an undergraduate at Washington University in St. Louis, she interned at the World Bird Sanctuary, which sparked her interest in bird conservation.

When researching graduate schools, Saunders was drawn to University of Minnesota professor Francesca Cuthbert's work with piping plovers, which seemed like the perfect fit. "Working with piping plovers during the summer field seasons has absolutely been the best part of my graduate school career," Saunders says. She adds that Cuthbert, who is now her advisor, has played a major role in her success. "She let me choose my own questions and guided my thinking along the way."

Saunders considers her advisor and other mentors to be invaluable to her education. "They have helped me every step of the way--from planning field seasons, to statistical advice, to publishing manuscripts," she says. "Each lends their own expertise to the process and I am grateful to have had such helpful and encouraging mentors over the past four and a half years."

Saunders received the 2014-15 Doctoral Dissertation fellowship and will defend in spring 2015. The fellowship enabled her to submit a final dissertation manuscript, give a final presentation at a conference, and apply to post-doctorate positions. During her time at the University, her work appeared in various academic journals. In addition to her Ph.D. work, she co-authored three papers with other students and a scientist at the Minnesota Zoo. "Sarah's most impressive talent is her drive to pursue research and carry it through to publication in peer-reviewed journals," Cuthbert says.

After spring, Saunders is excited to help conserve another declining species, monarch butterflies. As a post-doctoral research associate at Michigan State University, she will investigate the reasons behind the species' decline. "Hopefully, the familiarity and appeal of the monarch will bring this and other conservation issues to the forefront," she says.

– Lyra Fontaine