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Andrew Fulmer

College: Graduate Center
Awards: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, 2012

Counting All His Chickadees

Lots of animals hide food to eat later, but many won't do so if another animal is watching. After all, that other animal might try to steal the food. A chickadee, however, may cache food in the presence of another chickadee.

"Do chickadees develop trusting relationships that supersede normal anti-theft behavior?" asks Andrew Goldklank Fulmer, a doctoral student at the CUNY Graduate Center. "And, if so, at what stages of development do they have to meet the other birds for that to happen? Does spending a first winter with another individual encourage food caching in front of that individual later in life?"

Hoping to answer those questions, Fulmer intends to spend considerable time observing the behavior of individual chickadees. He will be supported by a 2012 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, the most prestigious award that a graduate student in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) can receive. Providing $126,000 over three years, the grants recognize and support exceptional students who have proposed graduate-level research projects in their fields.

He will conduct his research in Black Rock Forest in Cornwall, N.Y., in nearby Orange County. Black Rock is a nearly 4,000-acre natural living laboratory for field-based scientific research and education. It is run by a consortium of colleges and universities, public and independent schools and scientific and cultural institutions; among them is City College of New York.

Why did he choose to study chickadees? "Most importantly, I've always been fascinated by the variety of social behaviors different animals exhibit. Every species has different needs, and they all meet those needs in unique ways. Chickadees are special because they're known to have a strong audience effect - that is, they don't cache food in front of neighbors. But they also have periods of life where it's important for them to cooperate with other chickadees, such as when they form loose flocks during winter, huddling together for warmth. If they have a relationship with another chickadee earlier in life - a clutch mate, or a parent or an unrelated bird that they grow up with - will that alter their caching behavior?"

He says he'll track "a series of individual birds over the winter, observing their social association patterns, and provision subgroups with food under certain circumstances. I'll do that over a period of developmental time that allows me to see what happens over the life cycle of given birds. I'd like to see, for example, whether good experiences with other birds as juveniles might increase food sharing with those birds and whether a reduction in resources might decrease sharing."

Fulmer was born in Manhattan and attended Hunter College Elementary and High Schools. He earned his bachelor's degree in zoology at Hampshire College in 2010. For a year after graduation, he did field work in the Kalahari Desert in South Africa with the Kalahari Meerkat Project, which attracts zoologists from all over the world. This research station, in part run by Cambridge University, also was the site of Animal Planet's "Meerkat Manor" TV series.

"Working there was a lot of fun," he says. "Meerkats are an excellent example of the kind of animal that lends itself to social behavior research. They live in groups with exclusive membership and cooperate with one another in many ways. They do not usually survive long by themselves."

As an undergraduate, he spent a winter studying bats in Costa Rica with German researcher Mirjam Knörnschild. He was lead author on a paper they published in the Journal of Ethology on a topic related to his upcoming work on chickadees - association choice, intracolonial social distance and signaling modalities in greater sac-winged bats (Saccopteryx bilineata).

"These are bats that are awake and doing their socializing during the day," Fulmer says. "They hang out on the same roofs, which lets me observe the distance they keep from each other. They're in harem-based families, so it's interesting to see how far apart the females are from each other and how far each harem is from other harems. Males who aren't in the harem tend to associate more with one another than with the females in the harem that they were trying to access. It's a cool system."

And, he adds, researching them came with an unexpected benefit. "These bats eat mosquitoes, so they're good to hang out with when you're in the jungle."