Portrait of

Speciation in sapsuckers

Libby Natola, a PhD candidate in the Irwin Lab at the UBC Biodiversity Research Centre, shares her journey in academia, including her research on speciation amongst sapsuckers in North America.

My name is Libby Natola. I'm a PhD candidate in Dr. Darren Irwin's lab and I study speciation in sapsuckers. I study speciation, which is the evolutionary process by which new species arise. And as such, it explains how all of the incredible biodiversity on earth came to be. Speciation is a gradual process that behaves like limbs on a tree. So similarly to how a branch on a tree might split into multiple twigs that might someday become branches themselves, a common ancestor might split into multiple descendant lineages which may one day become new species themselves.

These splits occur because some isolation barrier occurs to prevent two different populations within the ancestral species from interbreeding, and this allows genetic differences to accumulate in the two different populations which is what begins their trajectories as new species. In birds, which we study in the Irwin Lab, these barriers could be anything from geological features which subdivide populations within an ancestral species such as mountains or oceans, or they could be differences between populations and song or plumage, which make individuals from different populations unattractive to each other as mates.

For my research, I study red-breasted red-naped and yellow-bellied sapsuckers. I go out into the field and I go to regions where sapsuckers co-occur and interbreed. I collect data on their habitats, on their mate choice and on their drumming behaviours. I trap the sapsuckers to take plumage photos in a small blood sample and I release them back into the wild. Then I take the blood back to the lab sequence the DNA. I then combine my bioinformatic and my field data to better understand why there are three species of sapsucker and not one.

Why did you choose to study birds?

I got really interested studying speciation in birds because I was working as a field technician at a bird banding station and there were so many species and it was so hard to learn so many species and I said "Why on earth are there so many more birds than other species that we see around us?" and so that question of why are there so many is what brought me here today.

What is your favourite organism?

I don't have a favourite organism. My favourite organism is whatever you've just put right in front of me. All of the organisms are great!

What is your favourite research memory?

There was this one time when I was out in the field and I was trying to get a recording of a sapsucker and I could hear this nest had just fledged. I could hear this fledgling out in the woods, so I took my microphone out and I was going to record it and I'm looking around and I can see this fledgling was just right on this branch. It was right in front of me. I took out my cell phone and got the cutest video. It was such a special moment between that little bird and me. And then it, you know, went off on its merry way.

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