Professor serves up research at Science on Tap

The Sunset Zoo hosts a Science on Tap event once a month at the Tallgrass Taphouse in downtown Manhattan. For each session, a local scientist gives a brief presentation followed by an open discussion. (Alex Todd | Collegian Media Group)

In addition to craft beer, pub-goers at Tallgrass Tap House also drank up a Kansas State professor’s research during Wednesday’s Science on Tap event.

Alice Boyle, assistant professor of biology, shared the highlights of her research on the effects of rising rainfalls in the tropics on the white-ruffed manakin – a small fruit-eating bird native to South America.

Showing a picture of a wet, tropical forest in Costa Rica, Boyle said weather affects species there much differently than in Kansas.

“In the tropics, arguably, rainfall is a much more important driver of how these communities are shaped than temperature,” Boyle said.

For the most part, Boyle said, we are taught that more rain is usually better, that it means more plants and more food all the way up the food chain. However, her research shows that this is not always true.

During her graduate research on why some tropical birds migrate over elevational gradients, Boyle’s findings focused first on food, but after five years of research, Boyle started to see that food was not driving those migrations so much as weather.

“Twice as much rain falls at those higher elevation sites than the lower elevation sites,” Boyle said. The excessive rain prevents these birds from scavenging for food, so some of them head for lower elevations.

But, the birds that migrate to lower elevations suffer reproductive consequences, Boyle said. Male birds take a long time to work their way up in social status and master the high-speed, highly complicated mating dances. The birds that escape the bad conditions by migrating are then less socially mobile and less able to attract mates.

Boyle is currently studying the social hierarchy and genetic makeup of the white-ruffed manakin to see if migration patterns from high to low elevations will change how individual males are able to dominate the reproductive scene in those systems.

Boyle said she will continue to share her research by presenting at conferences and doing public outreach every semester in her lab, and she hopes more people become excited about science by making connections to their everyday lives and teaching them in a non-threatening way.

Rachel Hunt, sophomore in biology, came to the event with her friends. She said it fueled her interest in birds, and she may take ecology classes in the future. Hunt said she hopes to come to more of these events in the future.

Nicole Wade, programs and education animals manager at the Sunset Zoo, said the goal of Science on Tap is to share K-State’s research with the public in a relaxed environment.

Science on Tap event is part of the Sunset Zoo’s Behind the Science Initiative and is held on the third Wednesday of each month from August to April. The next Science on Tap event is scheduled for March 28 at Tallgrass Taphouse at 7 p.m., featuring Kathryn Reif, assistant professor in diagnostic medicine and pathology, and her research on tick-borne diseases in cattle.