One of the best things about fieldwork (and science in general) is that it is rarely predictable. I like to think that after years of research in remote places, I am a little jaded. Fifteen-hour bus trips, open-air toilets, and swarms of insects no longer faze me. However, I admit to being pretty surprised by our visit to the field station outside Yekaterinburg.
We just got back to Moscow after spending six days at the “Crane Homeland Field Station” three hours north of the capital. It actually turns out to be six hours north of the capital if you leave at 3pm on Friday, as we found out. Our experience so far has overall been incredibly positive! We are returning with banding data and samples for 31 barn swallows and song recordings from 12 different males, which just exceeds our target sample sizes of 30 and 10. If we get these kinds of numbers at the rest of our sites, this will be more than sufficient to characterize the variation we see in tail feather (streamer) length, color, and song across populations, which vary as a result of differences in female preferences for these traits. We will also be using some cutting-edge genomic techniques to figure out which parts of the barn swallow genome are correlated with this variation.
Why we're going to Siberia
This summer is our first field expedition on the new barn swallow grant, and Matt and I will be traveling across Russia studying three different subspecies- H. r. rustica, H. r. tytleri, and H. r. gutturalis. One of the big goals of this project is understanding why the subspecies look different (check out the About page for more info). Traits such as plumage, song, and morphology are used in mate choice decisions, and population-level variation in these traits can therefore initiate the speciation process by generating reproductive barriers. It's particularly important to study these traits in contact areas between different subspecies, because this is where barriers between differentiated groups are most likely to break down. When we visit these "contact zones," we can see if there's any evidence for hybridization (i.e., weak reproductive barriers), or if neighboring populations are very differentiated (i.e., strong reproductive isolation). These different patterns provide clues to the processes causing subspecies to diverge from each other.