Research in the Mennill Sound Analysis Lab

Research Interests

Research in the Mennill Sound Analysis Lab focuses on the ecology and evolution of communication and mating systems of wild animals. My students and I study the interaction between animal communication and reproductive strategies, and the influence of natural selection and sexual selection on vocal behaviour and mating behaviour. We focus heavily on the behavioural ecology of birds but we also study frogs and mammals.  I am a field biologist; my students and I combine our laboratory-based research with an intensive field-based approach to study the behavioural ecology of animals in their natural environment. Together with a variety of collaborators, I maintain ongoing studies of chickadees and sparrows in Canada, and wrens, manakins, and toads in Costa Rica.

Field-based and Lab-based Research

In the field, I use a variety of innovative techniques to study mating systems and communication systems. I use interactive playback and multi-channel playback to investigate animal communication strategies and the evolution of animal signals. I use long-term remote recordings as a passive strategy for monitoring the behaviour and ecology of rare and endangered birds. I have helped pioneer the development of an Acoustic Location System (ALS) capable of triangulating the position of free-living animals based on the sounds they produce. Presently, I am using ALS technology to study the ecology of vocal duetting behaviour in tropical birds in Costa Rica and the evolution of communication networks in temperate birds in Canada.

On campus at the University of Windsor, I run Canada's largest and most comprehensive laboratory devoted to the study of animal sounds. My laboratory includes a digital library of over 200 terrabytes of recordings of animal sounds from North, Central, and South America. I have six sound analysis stations running state-of-the-art sound analysis software that my students and I use to analyze our field recordings. I collaborate with other professors in the Department of Biological Sciences to conduct studies of plumage colour and genetic mating systems.

Research sites

In CanadaI study the communication and mating behaviour of territorial songbirds. Although the ecology of many North America birds is generally well understood, my research demonstrates that alternative frameworks may be more suitable for modeling animal communication behaviour and reproductive choices. In particular, I have shown that songbird populations may be thought of as networks of communicating individuals and that females make reproductive decisions based on males’ network-based behaviour.

In Santa Rosa National Park, within the Area de Conservacion Guanacaste, Costa Rica, I study the mating system and communication system of resident tropical animals. The ecology of tropical animals is poorly understood, especially with respect to their vocal behaviour and mating systems. In 2002, I began research on the Thryothorus wrens in the Guanacaste Conservation Area in northwest Costa Rica. To date, the project has involved colour banding individuals, monitoring territoriality and reproductive behaviour, and describing the vocalizations of species that have never been studied previously. My research has revealed new insight into the similarities and differences of vocal behaviour in temperate versus tropical birds, and the ecology and evolution of female song and vocal duetting.

Join the lab!

I am always looking to recruit talented students to my laboratory who are interested in studying behavioural ecology of wild animals. Click here to find out how to join my research team.

Read popular press articles about my research

Song Fights: When Male Birds Go Tune to Tune
An article about countersinging interactions in birds from Science News (in PDF format).

Just Duet: Biologists puzzle over birds' ensemble vocalizations
An article about avian duetting from Science News (in PDF format).

Careless Whispers Cost Chicks
An article about my chickadee eavesdropping experiment from Nature Science Update magazine.

Chickadee Karaoke
An article about my chickadee research from The Why Files magazine.

Female Chickadees Love the Lead Singer
An article about eavesdropping in female chickadees from USA Today.

Visit my publications page to read the science behind these articles, and other research papers by me and my students.