Emily Cohen awarded NSF CAREER Award to study migrating birds as communities

February 14, 2022

Effort includes new approach to studying migration, women in science initiative

Emily Cohen, the UMCES researcher awarded a Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) Award to lead a five-year research program to help understand the processes that influence the formation of bird communities during spring and fall migration.

University of Maryland Center for Environmental ScienceAssistant Professor Emily Cohen has received a Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation to lead a five-year research program to help understand the processes that influence the formation of bird communities during spring and fall migration. This work tests the notion that a wider view on animal migration is needed–one that considers migrating animals as communities engaged in networks of ecological interactions that influence assembly processes—to advance an integrated understanding of animal migration.

“We live in a rapidly changing world where many species are declining, and this is especially true for migratory species. It is possible that changes in habitat, climate, and resource availability due to unprecedented human activity are inflating the costs associated with animal migration. Studying migratory animals as communities could enhance our ability to identify flyways and hotspots to prioritize conservation efforts across species. The good news is that it is increasingly possible to study these interactions today,” Cohen said.

The $750,000 award is part of the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program that offers the most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models and are building a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.

Cohen’s laboratory at UMCES’ Appalachian Laboratory aims to understand animal migration biology in the context of the full annual cycle, making use of field, lab, and remotely sensed data integrated with rigorous quantitative tools to address fundamental questions about migration biology.

Biologists have long sought to understand the phenomenon of animal migration, how millions of animals, from moths to whales, undergo difficult journeys every year in pursuit of survival and reproduction. Migration studies have often occurred through the lens of population ecology, investigation of one species at a time. However, these migratory journeys are often collective with many species migrating at the same time and converging in the same places along the way, a phenomenon Cohen calls “co-migration.” Due to the difficulty and cost inherent in tracking and monitoring animals across oceans or vast distances of land, co-migration has been historically understudied in ecology.

This project will use banding and tracking to study the community of bird species that stopover together during migration. Artwork by Abby McBride

“This lack of research on such an important annual occurrence is problematic because scientists do not fully understand how one animal species may impact or rely on other species during their migrations. Changes in one species may affect other species that travel with them, and that may mean a change in approach for species conservation efforts, which tend to focus on one species at a time,” said Cohen.

New technologies, such as weather surveillance radar networks that record detailed information about migrating birds, bats, and insects over large areas of land, and tracking of individually tagged animals, combined with more traditional data collection from bird-banding observatories make it possible to study co-migration at both the community and individual animal levels.     

This work will fill critical gaps in the study of migration biology, that has failed to place migrating animals in a community-context, and in community ecology, that has largely focused on resident species, overlooking communities on the move.

Consistent with Cohen’s objective to inspire, train, and educate people through the wonder of bird migration, she will also lead an all-female team of science education professionals to address two environmental science communication challenges: poor understanding of the effectiveness of public engagement experiences at bird observatories and lack of opportunities for secondary science teachers to engage in authentic research.