UMass Amherst Biologist Receives Fulbright Award to Study Birdsong in the Amazon

Jeff Podos
Jeff Podos

AMHERST, Mass. – Biologist Jeff Podos at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has been awarded a Fulbright Scholar grant that will not only support his teaching next fall at Brazil’s National Institute for Amazon Research and the Federal University of Amazonas, but will also take him deep into the Amazon rain forest to study birds that communicate vocally in unusual ways.

Podos, an expert in bioacoustics, says the national institute and the university, the oldest in Brazil, both in the Amazon’s largest city Manaus, are global hubs for biologists studying biodiversity. He will be collaborating with Mario Cohn-Haft, who grew up in Williamsburg, Mass., not far from UMass Amherst, and who is now curator of birds at the national institute and a world expert on Amazonian birds and their identification.

Podos says, “Mario has been leading expeditions into far-flung, remote areas of the Amazon to find and characterize the bird species, their habitats and behavior. As a team, we hope to make audio and video recordings of some of the bird species that sing in very unusual ways, and to describe their habitat. The behavior and vocalizations of some of these species are very poorly understood.”

The researchers have identified a range of possible target species and locations for their work, Podos notes. “Too much planning is a recipe for failure in the Amazon, where conditions can easily change. One needs to be flexible.”

The Fulbright Scholar program, which provides its scholars with a stipend and pays for travel, is sponsored by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The program was established in 1946 and emphasizes science diplomacy and international research collaborations between American researchers and their colleagues around the world.

Some of the birds Podos hopes to study are small, yet they deliver songs that can be heard as far as a mile away, the biologist says. He and Cohn-Haft will use not only high quality sound recorders but also special sound-level meters and high-speed video to slow the action enough for study.

“Some of the songs are deafeningly loud, the decibels are like a blasting rock band, and from a relatively small animal. We are interested in identifying adaptations these birds have for long-distance song transmission. It’s a topic that has been very poorly studied,” he says. “We don’t know how small animals manage to get so loud. We are truly at the early stages of understanding this biodiversity.”

Podos and Cohn-Haft also plan to explore the birds’ morphology, including such things as their neck and chest musculature, size of the head and beak, the shape of the throat and how these may influence the unusual ways they sing. “We expect to see patterns of morphology that have not described before,” Podos notes. “We hope to be able to connect body forms to the sounds they produce. This sounds simple, but it will provide a lot of information about the ecology, diversity and evolution of these species.”

He adds, “This is all important because these birds communicate using their songs, and they diverge morphologically by natural selection, which changes the kind of songs they can sing. This is a rarely studied area. We’ll also look at adaptations to other features of their environment that may influence their songs, which in turn influence their social interactions. Songs are the glue that holds bird societies together, and we want to learn more about the process.”

For the teaching component, which represents about 30 percent of his Fulbright award, Podos will offer a graduate-level course in bioacoustics at both institutions, where there are not many biologists who study and teach animal behavior, he says. With his fluency in speaking and reading Portuguese improving each year, he also plans to mentor graduate students in their research. He has already served on thesis committees for 14 Brazilian students and looks forward to helping more, and to learning what kinds of research they are doing.

As part of the Fulbright mission to “expand and strengthen relationships between people of the United States and citizens of other nations and to promote international understanding and cooperation,” scholars are expected to give public talks, mentor students and engage with the host community, in addition to their research and teaching‎.