Title: Teaching Associate Professor
Area of Study: Behavioral and Evolutionary Ecology of Birds
Office: Howell S210
Address: Department of Biology
East Carolina University
Greenville, NC 27858
I am broadly interested in the evolution of sociality. Social systems are the products of behavioral strategies of individuals. I study how conflicts of interest arising from group-living are resolved through the evolution of alternative behavioral strategies. My studies have focused on parent-offspring conflict, reproductive parasitism, and other conflicts arising from sociality. I am particularly interested in how ecological, social and genetic factors interact in shaping the evolution of parasitic and cooperative breeding strategies. Measuring kinship is fundamental to understanding conflicts of interest. My research integrates field observation and experimental work on populations of marked individuals with molecular genetic determination of relatedness. In one project, I study how ecological factors affect the evolution of conspecific brood parasitism in the common moorhen. Host responses to brood parasitism are expected to vary in relation to the risk of parasitism and the cost of parasitism to the host. One principal question is: Among populations with varying rates of conspecific brood parasitism, are host responses predictable from ecological, genetic and social factors?
Behavior and evolution of female mimic ruff sandpipers
Since 2006, I have collaborated with David Lank (Simon Fraser University, Canada) investigating the evolution and behavior of female mimics among ruff sandpipers. Male ruff sandpipers come in three flavors:
Independents with dark ruff plumages, defend territories (courts) on the mating arena,
Satellites with white ruff plumages move among these courts and co-display, while
Faeders (female mimics) are smaller, have female-like plumage and behave as sneakers. We conducted breeding experiments in aviaries at Simon Fraser University to look at the behavior and evolution of this morph. Collaborating with colleagues from the U.K. working on the genomics of ruff morphs, we discovered that the genetic basis for these extraordinary reproductive strategies is a chromosomal inversion or 'supergene'. For details:
Conservation is a strong motivation for my research, and I am becoming increasingly involved in local avian projects (see below) and through ECU's agreement with Sylvan Heights Bird Park:
King Rail Conservation Project
Since 2011, my students and I have been studying King Rails
Rallus elegans, a rare and declining secretive marshbird. Wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems and provide habitat for up to 85% of North America's migratory bird species. Wetland destruction across much of the King Rail's range
http://species.mol.org/species/Rallus_elegans has led to the decline of this and other marsh bird populations. The King Rail is the fastest declining hunted rail species, listed in the North American Conservation Action Plan as a species of 'high concern', and globally as 'Near Threatened' by BirdLife International. Due to the bird's secretive nature, infrequent vocalizations, cryptic plumage, and occupancy of densely vegetated wetlands, little is known about the King Rail's behavior, demography or habitat use. We have begun to redress this by studying a breeding population at Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge
http://www.fws.gov/refuge/mackay_island/. Though making inferences about population size, dispersal, recruitment, and survival rates is challenging, we have been making inroads through a combination of field monitoring and experiments, complemented by genetic analysis of population structure.
Behavior, Ecology and Genetics of the Eastern Bluebird
Since 2010, my students and I have been monitoring Eastern Bluebirds nesting at ECU's West Research Campus. We are examining long-term seasonal trends in reproductive success, and life history variables (timing of breeding, clutch size, hatching and fledging rates), as well as site fidelity and recruitment. Becoming a field assistant on this project is an excellent way for undergraduates to learn techniques in field ornithology. Several students have developed their own Honors Thesis projects on this system. Interested biology majors are encouraged to inquire, but please only do so if you are willing to commit to working on the project during through the summer semesters. In part, this is a conservation project as well: Eastern Bluebird populations are coming back having declined. They are limited by breeding sites due to shortage of nest cavities and competition from introduced European Starlings. We use 'Homes for Bluebirds' (
http://www.danfinch.com/birds.htm Bailey, NC) nest boxes that are built to exclude starlings and cowbirds.
*Clauser, A.J. and S.B. McRae 2016. Plasticity in incubation behavior and shading by king rails (
Rallus elegans) in response to temperature. Journal of Avian Biology doi:
*Clauser, A.J. and S.B. McRae 2016. King rails (
) vary building effort and nest height in relation to water level. Waterbirds (accepted, in press, September issue)
Küpper, C., Stocks, M., Risse, J.E., dos Remedios, N., Farrell, L.L., McRae, S.B., Morgan, T.C., Karlionova, N., Pinchuk, P., Verkuil, Y.I., Kitaysky, A.S., Wingfield, J.C., Piersma, T., Zeng, K., Slate, J., Blaxter, M., Lank, D.B. and T. Burke 2015. A supergene determines highly divergent male reproductive morphs in the ruff.
*Bade, L.M., Balakrishnan, C.N., Pilgrim, E.M., McRae, S.B. and J.J. Luczkovich. 2014. A genetic technique to identify the diet of cownose rays,
Rhinoptera bonasus: analysis of shellfish prey items from North Carolina and Virginia.
Environmental Biology of Fishes
*Farrell, L.L., T. Burke, J. Slate, S.B. McRae and D.B. Lank 2013. Mapping the female mimic morph locus on the microsatellite linkage map of the ruff.
BMC Genetics 14:109
Lank D.B., *Farrell L.L., Burke T., Piersma T. and S.B. McRae 2013. A dominant allele controls development into female mimic male and diminutive female ruffs.
Biology Letters 20130653
*Brackett, C.L., *Maley, J.M., Brumfield, R.T. and S.B. McRae 2013. Characterization of microsatellite loci for a threatened species, the King Rail,
Rallus elegans, using a next-generation sequencing protocol.
Conservation Genetics Resources 5:1189-1191.
McRae, S.B. 2011. Conspecific brood parasitism in the tropics: an experimental investigation of host responses in common moorhens and American purple gallinules.
Ecology and Evolution 1(3): 317-329. DOI: 10.1002/ece3.26
*Stang, A.T. and S.B. McRae 2009. Why some rails have white tails: the evolution of white undertail plumage and anti-predator signaling.
Evolutionary Ecology 23:943-961.
McRae, S.B., Emlen, S.T., *Rubenstein, D.R. and S.M. Bogdanowicz 2005. Polymorphic microsatellite loci in a plural breeder, the grey-capped social weaver (
Pseudonigrita arnaudi), isolated with an improved enrichment protocol using fragment size selection.
Molecular Ecology Notes 5:16-20.
Jamieson, I.G., McRae, S.B., *Trewby, M. and R.E. Simmons 2000. High rates of conspecific brood parasitism and egg rejection in coots and moorhens in ephemeral wetlands in Namibia.
Auk 117: 250-252.
Kokko, H. and S.B. McRae 2000.
Take care when studying parenting behaviour.
Trends in Ecology and Evolution 15:440-441.
All publications through
BIOL 1200 Principles in Biology II (2001 - present) Fall
BIOL 1201 Principles in Biology II, Lab Coordinator (Aug. 2002 - 2008), Faculty Advisor (2008 - present)
BIOL 3240, 3241 Field Zoology, Field Zoology Lab (2010 - present), Spring, even years
BIOL 3740, 3741 Animal Behavior, Animal Behavior Lab (2007 - present) Fall
BIOL 4400 Terrestrial Field Ecology: Summer Study Abroad in Panama (2009 - present)
BIOL 4995 Biology Honors Thesis (Coordinator) Fall, Spring
BIOL 4770/6770, 4771/6771 Ornithology, Ornithology Lab (2000 - present) Spring
Katie Schroeder (schroederk15 at students dot ecu dot edu)
Katie is interested in evolution of vocal communication and how it relates to social interactions. Her thesis focuses on the structure and function of king rail calls, as well as factors affecting rail detection probability using call broadcast versus autonomous recording units (ARUs).
Amanda Clauser, MS 2015
Amanda’s thesis examined
the effect of thermal stress and water level variation on parental behavior and
Carol Brackett, MS 2013
Carol developed species-specific genetic markers to look at
king rail mating strategies and reproductive success
Jaan Kolts, MS 2014
Jaan radio-tracked king rails to determine home range size,
movement patterns and habitat preferences.
He is an ecological consultant
with J.H. Carter III & Assoc. Inc. Environmental Consultants in Southern
Debbie Mauney, MS 2009
Debbie studied brood sex ratios in the common moorhen
She is Avian Clinic Director at the Center for Birds of
Prey in Charleston, S.C. http://188.8.131.52/~birdsofprey/avian-medical-clinic/
(this is just a sampling of the many talented undergraduates that have passed through the lab, and gone on to do great things!)