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Bullard Spotlight: Tom Sherry on the Evolution of Bird Communities

April 4, 2019
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An illustration of a bird.

Charles Bullard Fellow Thomas Sherry, who studies terrestrial bird migration, community structure, and conservation at Tulane University in New Orleans, used his six-month residency at the Forest to begin a book on the co-evolution and community-driven specialization of tropical birds and insects.

His unique integration of evolutionary approaches with ecological processes like predator-prey interactions and interspecific competition has led to new insights into the organization of tropical communities. This approach looks to the deeper evolutionary origins of questions that ecologists typically ask about communities.

Although Sherry's focus has been on the tropics, one chapter of his forthcoming book explores insights into how tropical evolution of specialization indirectly contributed to the adaptive radiation of New World wood warblers, which dominate the abundance, diversity, and ecosystem services of birds in New England forests.

Sherry says the attraction of Harvard Forest for this fellowship was a quiet retreat away from home-institution responsibilities, ready access to a variety of experts both in Cambridge and the Harvard Forest, and a full seminar schedule to think more broadly about forest ecology. He also used the fellowship as a platform to interact with plant biologists and ecologists, to explore possible parallels between bird-insect co-evolution and plant-herbivore co-evolution, as well as mechanisms of tropical tree coexistence. During his fellowship, he gave seminars at Harvard Forest, University of Utah, Cornell, and the University of Connecticut to test his ideas and get valuable feedback.

(The pen-and-ink drawings here - important biological illustrations for Sherry's Bullard project - were done by Meg Maurer, a Tulane University senior undergraduate, in consultation with Sherry throughout his residency at Harvard Forest. These and six other drawings will serve as a memorial to this extremely gifted student, who unfortunately was killed in an accident in March 2019.)

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