Birds and Spiders, oh my! Matt Wilkins at Real Scientists

Heading over to Nebraska, USA, we’re delighted to welcome our next curator, Dr Matt Wilkins (@mattwilkinsbio). Matt is an evolutionary biology postdoctoral fellow in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, went to undergrad at Vanderbilt University, and did his PhD at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Matt studies sexual signal evolution in birds and spiders and is increasingly motivated to improve the unnamedlevel of science engagement across the US. Here is how Matt ended up studying spiders and birds.
It took me a while to figure out not only that I wanted to be a biologist, but also how one even does that. Growing up, I was never exposed to scientists or career academics, and although I loved watching nature documentaries and the like, I didn’t recognize science as a career path. After my first semester in undergrad as a biomedical engineering major, I realized I hated engineering. But loved the bio part. I kind of stumbled into a lab job and suddenly found the world of academia opened up to me.
In undergrad, I double majored in Ecology, Evolution, & Organismal Biology and Spanish Linguistics, which seem to be totally unrelated. In retrospect, my current research on the evolution of communication systems blends these interests quite nicely.
Broadly, I am interested in identifying general patterns in the structure and function of animal signaling systems (i.e., what are the types of traits that organisms use to signal dominance to competitors or quality to potential mates, and why?) For my PhD work, I studied the visual and acoustic (i.e. feather color and song) signals that are important in mate choice and competition in barn swallows. I also characterized song divergence among 19 populations of barn swallows, including 5 subspecies, across the Northern Hemisphere from Colorado to Turkey to Taiwan. I also looked at how divergence in mating signals (i.e. whether females choose mates based on how long their tail feathers are vs how dark they are) leads to changes in the way different bird populations look. An added goal of this research is to understand how divergence in signal use across populations can lead to the formation of new species. For my postdoc, I am using similar statistical and conceptual approaches to study signal divergence in wolf spiders! Different species in the genus Schizocosa have pretty complex visual and acoustic signals that vary across species, and are more tractable to study than birds in many ways. (And yeah, spiders court females with a type of “song” transmitted through whatever they’re standing on!)
Motivation: why should the lay public care about your research/work?
Reason #1: Because it’s cool!! How often have you sat in your backyard and listened to birds singing and wondered–What are they saying? Isn’t that just an interesting question? Reason #2: By studying individual communication systems (like birds, treehoppers, or crickets), we gain insight into the ways in which information is encoded or the way that senders can manipulate receivers, or the coevolutionary arms race that may apply between senders and receivers (similar to encryption and decryption algorithms) that may inspire technological progress. Many of our greatest breakthroughs in science are inspired by natural phenomena or arise unexpectedly from basic research. Reason #3: Research on mate choice and competition (sexual selection) informs our own lives. Behavioral research increasingly shows the intelligence of birds, whose “bird brains” are actually quite good at problem solving–highlighting our own bias to think we are in all ways superior to “the lower animals”. At the same time, many human attributes used in mate choice and competition–like mate choice copying (liking somebody because others do), sensory bias (preference for a particular color or smell, without any reason), honest signals of status (material wealth, job title, affiliation), honest signals of direct benefits (if she’s good with kids, she’ll be a good mom or if he’s funny, he’ll be approved by my family and won’t get into fights), honest handicaps (like being manly while singing in falsetto or wearing pink), and dominance badges (like, well, a police badge, that incurs punishment if faked)–all of these phenomena occur in animals from fish to frogs to birds. We’re not so different…
I’m increasingly interested in science communication and engagement. I want more people to get excited about science and incorporate critical thinking in every aspect of their daily lives. Thinking like a scientist applies to the grocery store as much as the classroom or in politics. There are a LOT of factors that go into which ice cream you choose. You don’t just go with the flavor the TV guy told you or just because that’s your dad’s favorite…But, seriously! Three Twins Lemon Cookie is the BEST! Anyway, because of these interests, I organized SciComm 2016 (nescicomm.comm), a two-day conference on science communication in Lincoln, NE, happening Sep 23-24. I also started a science outreach project–Numbat Media (, @numbatmedia)–that aims to produce edgier multimedia featuring scientists and the cool things they study, as well as promote other scientists’ outreach projects! The last thing is that I recently started Nebraska’s first Nerd Nite chapter, adding to over 100 cities that have monthly talks at a bar to grow community around curiosity, critical thinking, and beer 🙂
Ideal Day Off? The first thing would be, wake up when I wake up. Man, I am not a morning person! Next, make what I call Matt’s Turkish Breakfast–which is two fried eggs with fresh herbs from the garden, a couple pieces of sourdough toast with cream cheese and some good jam, kalamata olives, some nice hard cheese (Dubliner chedder or Manchego), pepperoncinis, diced tomatoes and cucumbers, and a little dab of yogurt and fresh fruit. Now I’m hungry again. Maybe watch some Bob’s Burgers, do a little work in the yard. Go for a run. Basically, just take my time doing anything for the rest of the day. Then have a bunch of friends over and cook dinner together (sushi or pizza) and just hang out. Yep, that’d be a good day. If it was on a beach in Hawaii, too, that’d be alright.
Please welcome Matt to Real Scientists!


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