Molecular Ecology and Genomics

lab 23Aprile 033 - CopyIn molecular ecology, population structure analyses conducted via genetic markers and modern laboratory techniques are increasing our understanding of current ecology, distribution, and genetic structures of many species of plants and animals. I believe that the questions that I am attempting to answer using a combination of different tools and methods, including high resolution molecular markers, will be beneficial for increasing our understanding of the ecology, evolution, and conservation of Neotropical migratory birds. In particular, my goals are: A) identify connectivity among populations at the breeding, molting, and wintering grounds. B) Identify sequences of DNA (loci) under natural selection. C) Understand and infer past demographic fluctuations of avian populations. Through a collaboration with Scientists at UCLA’s Center for Tropical Research, we have carried out next generation sequencing across a substantial portion of the Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris) genome. The DNA sequencing effort performed by Illumina technique allowed us to develop a panel of informative SNPs and target high variable DNA regions throughout the Painted Bunting genome… more coming soon!

Follow this link to learn more about Painted Bunting genome research..!


Stable Isotope Analyses (H, C, N) in migratory songbirds


I use Stable Isotope Analysis (SIA) to reveal migratory connectivity in species of songbirds across North America.

In this photo (left), I am preparing Painted Bunting feather samples before stable isotope (H) analyses.

Zenzal_et_al_2018_2In this example (maps on the left), you can see a pretty interesting breeding population origin variation in Ruby-throated hummingbirds passing through Alabama revealed by hydrogen stable isotope values extracted from feather samples.

See Supplementary material in Zenzal TJ, Contina AJ, Kelly JF, Moore FR, 2018: “Temporal migration patterns between natal locations of ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) and their Gulf Coast stopover site” Movement Ecology 6:2 DOI 10.1186/s40462-017-0120-2


Miniaturized light-level geolocation tags

contina_aukIn collaboration with my former postdoc advisor, Dr. Eli Bridge, and my former Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Jeff Kelly, and other colleagues at the University of Oklahoma, I worked extensively with miniaturized light-level geolocation tags (< 0.5 grams) deployed on various species of songbirds. These tags detect and log light intensities from the environment during the day and then, once the tags are recovered from the birds, the light level data (e.g. sunset, sunrise, solar at noon, etc.) are used to extrapolate coordinates, since at different locations the length of the day and the time of solar noon will vary with latitude and longitude, respectively. These miniaturized geolocator tags are less precise than GPS technology but can be fitted on small songbirds (≤ 15 grams). My research on songbird migration adopts geolocator technologies as a modern research tool to acquire unprecedented data of avian movements through the United States and Central America.


Animal Migration Research Group (Aeroecology)

RadarOU“Migratory movements reflect an animal’s need to eat, breed, avoid predators and find a tolerable physiological environment over the short term. These movements are also shaped by an animal’s evolutionary history, during which natural selection has resulted in behaviors that maximize fitness in complex and changing environments…” Dr. Jeff Kelly and Dr. Eli Bridge, my former Ph.D. advisor and current postdoc advisor, respectively, are promoting several interesting projects on animal migration involving radar technology, I am excited to be part of this wonderful group and give my contribution on animal migration research! Read more at and follow on facebook.


Past projects and other interests

Bird building collisions

WP_20150926_008Bird building collisions, especially in heavily light-polluted metropolitan areas, represent a serious concern for thousands of species across the world. Because of the number of species involved and the high mortality rate, it is urgent to address this issue with effective counter measures that need to be adopted globally. Although novel mitigation procedures have been introduced in numerous areas, such as special makers for windows and artificial light attenuation during fall and spring migration, the speed of city industrialization is not planned to slow, and migratory birds will keep suffering from dangers imposed by the modern human development.
I am conducting surveys early in the morning during fall and spring migration to quantify bird mortality rate at the tallest building in Norman (Sarkeys Energy Center – 15 floors tall, 209 ft) and at the Physical center OU building (photo on the left). I really need help for this project. Please get in touch with me if you are interested in participating. You can download the data sheet here.