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Students travel to Amazon for research on wire-tailed manakin

Millersville students, Jennifer Houtz and Lindsay Matter are assisting Dr. Horton in conducting research on Wire-Tailed Manakins within the depths of the rainforest. Photo Courtesy of Dr. Brent Horton.

Alex Bershtein
Staff Writer

At the Argires Science Complex of Millersville University, collaborations between undergraduate students and the biology departments’ Dr. Brent Horton are taking place. Since 2015, Dr. Horton has offered students majoring in biology the opportunity to do undergraduate research with international projects being done by many professional scientists. 

These students have traveled to the Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest of the Orellana Province and were there for two weeks, each collecting data on the wire-tailed manakins along the Tiputini River in Yasuní National Park. The students involved have so far been involved in studying the unique reproductive behavior and educating many people about these birds.

At first there was no student involvement. The research on the wire-tailed manakin began back in 2008 with Dr. Horton, Dr. Brandt Ryder of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, and Dr. Ignacio Moore from Virginia Tech. The bulk of the research conducted on the wire-tailed manakins was to understand why two males of the species work together in a coordinated display to attract females, something that Dr. Horton explained as “very unusual in the animal world.” 

After two years of this research, a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant was awarded to the group to fund the work. Later, a second NSF grant was awarded to specifically fund the incorporation of undergraduate research into the project, which allowed Dr. Horton to begin bringing students from Millersville University to the Amazon.

Dr. Horton explained that he recruited students based on their demonstrated merit. 

“These students weren’t just watching; they were collecting high-level data for the project, and so, they needed to be meticulous and trustworthy, and intelligent and capable. The Amazon Rainforest is a tough environment to work in, so they also needed to be physically and mentally strong to do this research,” he said. 

In addition to the research, the students that went had to endure the traveling aspects including being on a plane for hours, boats down the tributaries of the Amazon River, trucks alongside difficult terrain, and miles of hiking every day.

In 2015, the first undergraduate student from Millersville University to join Dr. Horton in this research was Jennifer Houtz. Now an alumnus, she did research on the wire-tailed manakins three different winters. These experiences were part of what led to Jenn becoming the first undergraduate at Millersville University to win the prestigious Barry Goldwater Scholarship. Currently, she is at Cornell University, and has been given the Cornell Presidential Scholar Fellowship and a three-year NSF grant to find her research.

The second student to join Dr. Horton was Lindsay Matter, who did her first undergraduate research trip to the Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest last winter in 2018. When asked what was a great experience during the field research, she replied “it made me realize that I wanted to work with wild animals in my future career and it was something very different because in school, on college campuses you are working with captive animals.”

Additionally, she was chosen to lead a project, alongside fellow Millersville student Christina Clawson, to create a manakin coloring book. This coloring book is part of an initiative of the Manakin Genomics Research Coordination Network (RCN) to increase human awareness of them, especially for those that find them in their backyards. 

Alongside Dr. Horton and his students’ work with the wire-tailed manakin, other researchers from around the world are attempting to sequence the genome of the group of birds to better understand their unique evolution. In the spring of 2018, Dr. Horton took both Lindsay Matter and Jennifer Houtz to Gamboa, Panama for a Manakin Genomics RCN Meeting. The two undergraduate students, who were the only ones there, met with experts from around the world. 

Lindsay Matter gave a presentation on the coloring book and handed out drafts to all the scientists, who utilized their expertise to critique the drafts before its finalization. This October, after efforts from Lindsay Matter and Christina Clawson’s leadership, as well as the artistic talents and translation efforts of several other biology majors at Millersville University, the book was published and greater accessibility of knowledge on manakins was given to a wider audience. 

Dr. Horton emphasized that, “these experiences really boost the training and quality of our students.” This research work on wire-tailed manakins is only one example of the escapades of undergraduate research among the university’s science departments, and is one that plans to continue exposing students to the world beyond the bounds of campus and national borders.

For students who are interested, the book can be found at: https://www.manakinsrcn.org