Dave Gammon's Research
mockingbird projects in which undergraduates might get involved
(some projects already in progress, others still swirling
around my head in embryo; talk to me for more details)
- Vocal mimicry in
(study of the sounds of organisms)
evolution and social learning in animals
- I am
also interested in interdisciplinary research
pathways, such as public understanding of science, observing human
history through an evolutionary lens, or thinking of ATP production as
a business supply chain. Let me know if you've got an interesting idea.
- How does the mimetic repertoire
change over time? The mimetic repertoire, which is the list
of species mimicked by a mockingbird, could potentially change in many
ways. For example, does the repertoire change seasonally in response to
breeding and migration patterns? Does it change year to year as old
birds pick up new tricks? Finally, does the population-level repertoire
change year to year as some songs become more fashionable, and others
become less trendy? This project involves making audio recordings of
lots of singing mockingbirds in the field, and then spending even more
time in front of a computer identifying sounds.
- Mock what--other species, or just the
neighbors? When Nutty the Mockingbird mimics a blue jay,
did he learn the blue jay sound from a blue jay, or from his
mockingbird neighbor? We are getting an answer to this question by
making acoustic comparisons between the songs of mimic and model
species, and by observing directly how song develops in mockingbirds.
Maybe true mimicry isn't as common as we think.
- Do mockingbirds actually communicate with
other species? Any amateur birder can identify a few of
the species that are mimicked by mockingbirds, but are these species
fooled by the mimicry? We are getting an answer to this question by
simultaneous monitoring of mockingbirds and of the species getting
mimicked. We might follow up these observational studies with playback
experiments. This project will involve lots of time in the field
chasing mockingbirds and other bird species.
- Is it possible to predict which environmental sounds get mimicked?
My previous observational research suggests mockingbirds preferentially
imitate environmental sounds that already sound acoustically like the
non-imitative song produced by mockingbirds. To verify this kind of
model selection actually takes place requires an experiment.
A song-tutoring like this is logistically complicated, but I
can do a "natural experiment" by performing a continent-wide
survey of mockingbirds and frog sounds to see if the suite of frog
species mimicked corresponds to predictions. This project involves lots
of time at a computer downloading sounds from youtube and from
libraries of natural sounds.
- How does vocal mimicry evolve?
Mapping vocal mimicry onto the phylogeny of mockingbirds and the rest
of Mimidae shows at one point the ancestor of mockingbirds had a vocal
repertoire lacking any imitations of other species. In contrast modern
mockingbirds have a repertoire consisting of both mimetic and
non-mimetic song. How do these two types of song compare acoustically,
and what does this tell us about the developmental mechanisms by
which vocal mimicry originates?
- Organizer of Tectonic Plates: Alamance County's
Science Cafe: Every month a professional scientist
visits a local restaurant to discuss cutting edge science in a relaxed
informal atmosphere without all the technical jargon. Contact me for
- Author of several editorials with local
and regional newspapers: I have written on topics such as climate
change, evolution, energy, statistics, and mockingbirds. To read
these editorials search
elon.edu for "In my words Gammon". I write editorials because so few people read peer-reviewed academic papers.
- Community presentations:
I have spoken with community gatherings on various science topics
such as animal behavior, birds, the evolutionary history of life,
and stem cell research. Contact me for more info.