Research Interests

  • Population-level genetic structure in threatened species and species of management concern
  • Historical population structure (using museum DNA)
  • Relationships between genetic variation and fitness in individuals
  • Genetic aspects of behavioral ecology (inbreeding avoidance, extra-pair paternity)

Current Research

Seaside Sparrow & Marsh Rice Rat Response to the BP Oil Spill

Andrea Bonisoli Alquati, Post-doctoral Fellow (January 2015 – present)

Funding: Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative RFP 4
Collaborators: Phil Stouffer (co-PI; LSU AgCenter), Linda Hooper-Bui (LSU AgCenter), LUMCON Consortium, Stefan Woltmann (Austin Peay University), Christine Bergeon Burns (Indiana University)

AndreaBAThe Deepwater Horizon oil spill released a large amount of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, an event that could have an important and negative impact on coastal ecosystems. Andrea will focus on marsh bird and rat populations, using the Seaside Sparrow (Ammodramus maritimus) and the marsh rice rat (Oryzomys palustris) as model species to examine some potential effects of the oil spill. The Seaside Sparrow and the marsh rice rat are ideal marsh representatives because they spend all or most of their time in salt marsh, they are top-level consumers, and they are relatively abundant in the study area. Andrea will examine whether gene expression differs on oiled versus unoiled areas. Collaborative research includes an assessment of reproductive success, survival and stress hormones in sparrows and diet changes in rats and sparrows. The study area is nested within the ongoing sampling framework of our collaborators (Coastal Waters Consortium), and will include replication of unoiled and heavily oiled sites.

Inbreeding Avoidance in Red Wolves

Kristin Brzeski, Ph.D. student (September 2010 - December 2015)

Funding: School of Renewable Natural Resources, Point Defiance Zoo, USFWS, NSF
Collaborators: Mike Chamberlain (University of Georgia), David Rabon (Red Wolf Recovery Team)

Inbreeding and reduced genetic variation may depress health, reduce reproductive success, and decrease survivorship. These costs may drive species to evolve behavior to avoid kin as mates, a behavior that in small, inbred populations with limited mating opportunities could cause individuals to select mates from members of a closely related species. Kristin is undertaking research on endangered wild red wolves (Canis rufus) to examine whether inbreeding and low Mhc genetic variation decrease fitness; whether the fitness costs of inbreeding may cause red wolves to seek unrelated mates; and in cases where unrelated mates are not available, whether inbreeding avoidance causes red wolves to hybridize with coyotes. Kristin has access to long-term data collected by the red wolf Recovery Program for all wild red wolves (c. 250), which includes information on genealogical relationships, reproductive success and fitness, and blood samples. Her research will estimate the effect of inbreeding and genetic variation on red wolf fitness, examine a potential cause of hybridization with coyotes, and more generally provide a theoretical understanding of hybridization.


Mhc Variation and Mycoplasmal Upper Respiratory Tract Disease in Gopher Tortoises

Jean Elbers, PhD student (Sept 2011 – present)

Funding: Gilbert Fellowship
Collaborators: Rachel Wallace-Clostio (Louisiana State University)

The gopher tortoise, (Gopherus polyphemus), is a longleaf pine associated species that has experienced population declines and shows low levels of genetic diversity at microsatellite loci. Gopher tortoises are also susceptible to upper respiratory tract disease (URTD) caused by Mycoplasma agassizii, which may decrease population viability and increase extinction risk. Jean is investigating the relationship between functional genetic variation and disease resistance in the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus). He will quantify genetic variation in the major histocompatibility complex (Mhc), a genomic region in vertebrates that is closely related to disease resistance and immune response, and relate observed Mhc variation to disease susceptibility as well as habitat quality and characteristics to inform future management plans for gopher tortoises.

Hybridization in Mottled Ducks and Mallards

Robert Ford, M.Sc. student (January 2013 - December 2015)

Funding: Gulf Coast Joint Venture, School of Renewable Natural Resources
Collaborators: Bruce Davis & Will Selman (Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries), Barry Wilson (Gulf Coast Joint Venture)

Mottled Ducks are a non-migratory species found in coastal marshes across the Gulf Coast. They are threatened by marsh loss, and more recently, by hybridization. Mottled Ducks hybridize with Mallards in Florida and South Carolina; however, their breeding behavior in the Western Gulf Coast is unclear. Because hybridization can reduce reproductive potential and cause the loss of an evolutionary lineage, managers want to know how much hybridization occurs in the Western Gulf Coast. Robert will examine Mottled Ducks and Mallards in several popuations from Louisiana to Texas and estimate levels of hybridization with a large panel microsatellite loci. His results will help to guide management plans designed to prevent population declines in Mottled Ducks.

Genetic Structure of Bachman's Sparrows

Amie Settlecowski, M.Sc. student (August 2015 - present)

Funding: LSU and LSU Agcenter
Collaborators: Jeremy Brown (Louisiana State University), Jim Cox and James Tucker (Tall Timbers Research Station), Robb Brumfield (Louisiana State University),

SettlecowskiBachman’s Sparrow (Peucaea aestivalis) is a species-at-risk that has declined from fire suppression, timber harvesting, and fragmentation of the open longleaf pine savannahs that it occupies. Information on genetic population structure in Bachman’s sparrows is important for effective management at both broad and fine scales. Morphological data and distribution maps suggest genetic structure; however, microsatellite data suggest that the species is panmictic. Historic samples and markers associated with functional loci may reveal important genetic structure associated with local adaptation and morphological subspecific designations. Amie will explore these issues for her MS degree.

Genetic Variation and Effective Population Size in Smalltooth Sawfish

Kelcee Smith, M.Sc. student (August 2014 - present)

Funding: LSU Agcenter
Collaborators: Bill Kelso (LSU AgCenter), John Carlson (NOAA), Kevin Feldheim (Field Museum), Nicole Phillips (University of Southern Mississippi)

SmithSmalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata) are critically endangered yet information on population size is lacking despite its importance to population viability analyses and management strategies. Kelcee will examine genetic variation in historic and contemporary samples to estimate effective population size and to examine how genetic variation and structure may have changed over time. Smalltooth sawfish are unusual among fish in that historic samples are available from dried rostra, which have been kept as trophies: most fish are preserved in formalin, a chemical that crosslinks DNA and often makes it unusable for genetic analyses. Kelcee's work will contribute important information for conservation and may serve as a benchmark for other elasmobranchs for which historic DNA samples are unavailable.

Genetic Structure of New Zealand Fernbirds

Sabrina Taylor

Funding: LSU Agcenter
Collaborators: Bruce Robertson (University of Otago), Colin O'Donnell (NZ Department of Conservation)

Fernbirds (Bowdleria punctata) are a species endemic to New Zealand frequently found in wetland areas. There are currently five described subspecies, several island populations, and considerable habitat loss and fragmentation. As such, there is considerable potential for genetic structure as a consequence of long-term reproductive isolation as well as more recent habitat fragmentation. I am collecting blood samples from the five subspecies as well as populations in the Te Anau Basin to examine whether subspecific designations have a genetic basis and whether fine-scale population differentiation exists as a consequence of habitat loss and isolation.

Former lab members


Dr. Christine Bergeon Burns (former postdoc)
Director, CISAB Lab
Indiana University
Jordan Hall 348
1001 E Third St, Bloomington IN 47405
812- 856-1139
cbergeon at



Blain Cerame (former MS student - Bachman's Sparrow)
SWCA Environmental Consultants





Dr. Stefan Woltmann (former post-doc)
Assistant Professor
Dept. of Biology
Austin Peay State University
Clarksville, TN 37044
woltmanns at