Project Title: Fluctuating Asymmetry as a Conservation Management Tool for Indicator Species of the Open Longleaf Pin Forest Ecosystem
Student: Emily Webb
Mentor: Dr. Shala Hankison
Understanding whether a species is in decline, and how that decline may impact a species, is a key to promoting the conservation process. One approach to investigating population decline in birds is to understand potential challenges to developmental stability, measured as deviations from perfect left-right symmetry, called fluctuating asymmetry. The Brown-headed Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla) is a resident of fire-dependent, open Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris) forests in southeastern parts of the United States. The endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis) shares the same habitat preference; therefore, Brown-headed Nuthatches could be used as an indicator of habitat quality for Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. Although Brown-headed Nuthatches are not listed as a species of concern in the state of Florida, their range has noticeably contracted over time; therefore, this research is valuable to the conservation of both species. This study will measure fluctuating asymmetry as a method that could potentially be used to monitor the developmental instability of Brown-headed Nuthatches and the significance of their decline, which could then be used to predict population health of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. Several morphological characters of Brown-headed Nuthatches will be measured using museum specimens in order to compile a historical data set with which to compare future studies in fluctuating asymmetry. White-breasted Nuthatches (Sitta carolinensis), the common counterpart to Brown-headed Nuthatches, will be similarly measured to serve as a control. Research suggests that Brown-headed Nuthatches, as a species in decline, should exhibit an overall increase in the incidence of fluctuating asymmetry over time, so that is the expected trend.