Molecular Ecology: Stable Isotopes

(H, C, N)


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


Chew B., Kelly JF., Contina A. 2019. Stable isotopes in avian research: a step by step protocol to feather sample preparation for stable isotope analysis of carbon (δ13C), nitrogen (δ15N), and hydrogen (δ2H)



Molecular Ecology: 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..!



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.



nsf-logoORIGIN: Origin Inference from Geospatial Isotope Networks

 (PIs Drs. Wunder, Bowen, Vander-Zanden)


ABSTRACT: Long-distance migration is a unique and important behavior with widespread implications for environmental and ecological systems. Animals face direct threats during migration ranging from severe nutritional stress to potential interactions with wind farms and other anthropogenic hazards. Migration links the geographic endpoints of an animal?s life cycle, and patterns of migration determine where and when animals are dependent on habitats that may be threatened or experiencing change due to human activities. Pathways of migration represent potential transmission paths for diseases, parasites, and nutrients carried by migrants. Despite the long-recognized significance of migration, detailed information on migration patterns for most animals is remarkably limited. The field of migration research is poised for major advances due to the development of new technologies and the potential to combine different types of data providing complementary information on animal migration. The ORIGIN project will represent a collaboration between biologists, geochemists, and computer scientists to develop software and database resources allowing researchers to take advantage of one particularly powerful method of reconstructing migration patterns ? the use of natural chemical signals preserved in the body tissues of migrants. In the course of this research the ORIGIN team will develop new statistical approaches that are widely useful to scientists and will provide novel interdisciplinary training to graduate students and research opportunities for undergraduates from STEM-underrepresented groups.

The goal of the ORIGIN project is to develop data and analytical resources that facilitate major advances in understanding of ecological, evolutionary, physiological, and biogeochemical dimensions of animal migration by increasing the use and standardization of isotope-enabled migration research methods. ORIGIN will consist of two integrated platforms that together provide the data resources, analytical tools, and project support necessary to streamline the analysis of data from migratory animal samples. First, updates to the IsoMAP web-GIS platform will enhance its ability to provide timely, authoritative, and comprehensive map data products and models describing patterns of isotopic variation in the environment. Second, these products will be used by a new package developed for the R programming environment that will provide an accessible but flexible suite of tools supporting 1) analysis of isotopic and non-isotopic data to evaluate the migratory origin of individuals, including two distinct Bayesian approaches for integration of data from multiple makers, 2) planning of isotope-enabled migration research projects, and 3) generation of analytics for assessment of statistical assignment results. ORIGIN will develop infrastructure that will support a wide range of scientific communities, and will support training and scientific outreach programs including a graduate short course in spatial sciences and human migration-focused research opportunities for undergraduates from STEM-underrepresented groups. Project results will be disseminated at



Past projects and other interests


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 former 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.


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.