Michael McQuillan is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Integrative Biology program
Michael started his undergraduate career as a jazz saxophone performance major at the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia. After a year of music school, he decided that a career in music was not for him, and he transferred to Temple University to pursue another passion, biology. It was at Temple that Michael discovered an interest in studying ecology.
At Temple, Michael conducted research in a community ecology lab, where he examined invasive species dynamics in marine environments. This initial interest in research eventually blossomed into a research path that combines the fields of ecology and evolution, which he has pursued since joining Dr. Amber Rice’s lab at Lehigh in 2012.
At Lehigh, Michael’s research interests focus on speciation, which is the process by which new species arise in nature. Understanding this process is of upmost importance for evolutionary biologists, because it is the same process that ultimately leads to the incredible amount of biodiversity we see in the world around us. To study this process, Michael studies natural hybridization, a natural phenomenon where two different species come into contact and mate with each other, producing hybrid offspring. This relatively common process is important to understand because it can tell us why species ultimately do or do not remain distinct from one another. Oftentimes, hybrid offspring are produced that are unfit, or unlikely to survive and reproduce, and understanding why hybrids are unfit can tell us a lot about how species remain distinct. One of Michael’s current research projects examines why hybrids may be selected against in nature.
To answer this question, Michael studies two different species of songbird that are hybridizing locally, the Black-capped and Carolina chickadee. These birds are prodigious ‘scatter hoarders,’ meaning they cache (store) food items in hundreds of different locations in the environment, and they must rely on their spatial memory in order to accurately retrieve those caches. This behavior is important for surviving harsh winter conditions, and birds that inhabit harsh environments have enhanced spatial memory ability compared to birds from milder environments. This ability has also been shown to be heritable, or under genetic control, and natural selection has likely favored enhanced spatial memory ability in harsh or unpredictable environments. Michael’s hypothesis is that hybrid chickadees may be cognitively deficient in terms of their spatial memory ability, compared to pure-species black-capped and Carolina chickadees. If so, hybrids may be less likely to survive the winter, and this could be a source of selection acting to keep the two species distinct from one another. To test this hypothesis, he uses behavioral experiments designed to compare the spatial memory ability of wild-caught pure and hybrid chickadees. Michael recently received a Sigma Xi grant to help fund his research project. In the future, he plans also to compare the general learning ability and problem-solving abilities of pure species and hybrids. In general, Michael’s research includes behavioral tests, genetic analyses, as well as climate modeling approaches to understand the ecological and evolutionary causes and consequences of hybridization in these species.
In his free time, Michael enjoys hiking, listening to/playing music, and hanging out with his pet cat.