American Society of Naturalists

A membership society whose goal is to advance and to diffuse knowledge of organic evolution and other broad biological principles so as to enhance the conceptual unification of the biological sciences.

“What do ecology, evolution, and behavior have in common? The organism in the middle”

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Ellen D. Ketterson (Aug 2020)

Read the Article (Just Accepted)

Scientists at early stages in their careers can wonder how to go about shaping a research path. Major influences will include past experiences (undergrad research), people you know well as a graduate student (advisors, fellow lab members, faculty committee members), issues being addressed in the current literature, and chance encounters at meetings or workshops. Reading about the unfolding of careers of other biologists can be reassuring. In this account, the author looks back over nearly 50 years of research to identify turning points in her research history. In her case, a persistent theme was the study organism and a curiosity about how mechanism and function work together. The research focused on the dark-eyed junco, a north-temperate passerine, and how its natural history could be used to address common themes in ecology, evolution, and animal behavior. The article describes research questions posed, including blind alleys, and those that proved more informative. The topics addressed include animal migrations (differential migration, site-fidelity, site recognition), hormone-mediated life history trade-offs (phenotypic engineering, hormonal pleiotropy, adaptation and constraint, phenotypic integration), and a return to migration as a contributing factor to population divergence (allochrony, heteropatry, photoperiodic thresholds, and mate choice). Unanswered questions are posed, including one of how reproductive timing will respond to environmental change and influence future species distributions. Very little of how Dr. Ketterson’s research turned out could have been foreseen, so the message to those starting out is to go bravely.


Biologists who publish in The American Naturalist are drawn to its unifying mission of covering research in the fields of ecology, evolution, behavior, and integrative biology. Presented here is one scientist’s attempt to straddle these fields by focusing on a single organism. It is also an account of how time spent in the field stimulates a naturalist to wonder ‘why did that animal just do that?’ and how research is guided by chance and intention interacting with the scientific literature and the people one meets along the way. With respect to the science, the examples come from bird migration, hormones and their connection to phenotypic integration, sexual and natural selection, and urban ecology. They also come from research on the impact of environmental change on timing of reproduction and the potential for allochrony in migratory species to influence population divergence.