Earthwatch Scientist, Rachel Bolus

Rachel Bolus

Assistant Professor of Biology, Southern Utah University

Dr. Rachel Bolus is a behavioral ecologist who is fascinated by animal migration and the evolution of animal sounds. She teaches ecology and ornithology and mentors a team of undergraduates to conduct research, including projects on how the environment affects the sounds that birds and bees make. She also regularly gets out into the community to share her love of local birds through guided bird walks and community classes.

Why are you interested in your research focus?

Overall, I first became interested in the evolution of animal sounds when I took my first field job in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. My job was to catch and find the nests of American Redstarts, a vibrant warbler with a loud, beautiful voice. To do my job well, I had to listen to the cacophony of related warblers all competing to be heard amongst the cedar boughs on the Lake Huron shoreline. At first, I could only make out the obvious differences between the Northern Parula and the Black-throated Green Warbler, but eventually I could sort out the subtleties of tone and rhythm that define the similar songs of the American Redstart and Magnolia Warbler. Next, I could hear the differences in the song modes and types of the Redstart. Next, I could tell individuals apart. My perception of sounds kept opening and expanding, just by listening closely. I realized for the first time how limited my awareness had been, and how there are interesting creatures and sounds everywhere, if you stop and pay attention. This is one of my favorite parts of teaching ornithology and leading bird walks, seeing that moment on peoples’ faces when they realize birds are everywhere. Because of this experience, I started reading papers about song learning, dialects, repertoires, acoustic environments, evolution… I was totally hooked.

I am really excited to record, analyze, and archive sounds of the hundreds of bee species that call Utah home. The ultimate goal is to create and online library of these sounds, starting with the flight buzzes. Recording what we have is an important step in conserving these important species. These recordings can also be used to evaluate the use of acoustic recording devices for nonlethal monitoring, another important goal of this project.

A great moment in the field

I can think of so many great moments:

  • the day I saw a hummingbird delicately collect spider web to build her nest
  • the day I caught 1200 salamanders as they moved en masse to their ephemeral ponds
  • the day I saw five redstarts fight at once by meeting their bills like spokes on a wheel while they whirred through the air
  • the day I saw the sky boil with migrating dragonflies
  • he day I found a garter snake with a bird egg in its mouth

There are so many things to see and experience in nature. Taking the time to observe leads to so many new ideas and appreciation for the diversity of landscapes and life that surround us.

Education
  • B.S. The University of Southern Mississippi, Biological Sciences
  • M.S. The University of Southern Mississippi, Biological Sciences
  • Ph.D. University of Massachusetts Amherst, Organismic and Evolutionary Biology
  • Postdoctoral Training. USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center, Bozeman, MT
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