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Indiana University Bloomington

Department of Biology

Alumni & Development

BioNews: Winter 2013-14

Flying high with the junco

Jonathan Atwell measuring a junco

Jonathan Atwell measures a dark-eyed junco. Atwell and Ellen Ketterson are seeking additional funds to support the worldwide distribution of their junco documentary, and they hope to further update and expand the teacher resource materials that accompany the film. Photo: Indiana University

When IU postdoctoral student Jonathan Atwell, PhD '11, compared wild dark-eyed juncos to their urban brethren that had established themselves on the University of California-San Diego campus in the early 1980s, he was surprised at how differently the two populations behaved. The UCSD birds were tamer, had bolder exploratory behaviors, and they exhibited lower stress hormone levels than their forest-dwelling counterparts. Junco adaptation to city life resulted in the birds' rapid genetic evolution of behavior and corresponding hormonal responses.

Atwell strongly felt that photographs alone could not capture these differences. "I realized that film or video would do a much better job, so I thought this would make a neat little documentary short," he recalled. That is how Atwell and his research mentor, the noted avian biologist and IU Distinguished Professor of Biology Ellen Ketterson, BA'66, MA68, PhD74, came to produce a scientific documentary on one of North America's most common songbirds. The film, entitled Ordinary Extraordinary Junco: Remarkable Biology from a Backyard Bird, highlights over 100 years of research on these sparrows that can be found throughout the continent and can look noticeably different depending on their location.

Juncos make an ideal study organism for a variety of reasons. They are abundant; the birds forage and nest on the ground, making them easy for researchers to observe; and they thrive quite well in captivity.


Incredible diversity is found in dark-eyed juncos throughout North America. Although they can appear noticeably different, the various types can interbreed where their ranges meet, a fact that confounded early scientists, but can now be understood with new genetic research tools. Photo: Indiana University

Atwell and Ketterson wanted the documentary to be scientifically accurate, informative, and suitable for classroom use at high school and college levels. To accomplish their goal, they tapped a variety of IU resources. Steve Burns, a telecommunications graduate, served as cinematographer, co-writer, co-director, and editor of the film. WFIU public radio producer Yaël Ksander narrated the piece. Joseph Toth handled sound design, color, and graphics, while Elie Abraham created original music for the film. Professor Emeritus Craig Nelson, named a 2000 Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, acted as a consultant. Former high school teacher, Deanna Soper, PhD '12, also served as a consultant and developed teaching resources for the project.

The resulting 88-minute film was designed in eight interconnected segments on various aspects of junco research. The piece can be shown in its entirety as a feature-length film or the segments can stand alone as individual instructional modules suitable for classroom use on topics ranging from the scientific method, animal behavior, ecology, and evolution. The National Research Council's National Science Education Standards and the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Benchmarks in Science Standards were followed.

Val Nolan and Ellen Ketterson

Ketterson began studying juncos in 1979 with her spouse and research partner, Val Nolan. She earned the 2011 College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Faculty Award. Photo ca. 2004: Courtesy of Ellen Ketterson

The documentary, which was released locally to rave reviews in December 2012 as part of the College of Arts and Sciences Themester program, is stunningly beautiful with images worthy of a travelogue. Fittingly, the piece is dedicated to the memory of Val Nolan Jr. (1920−2008), Ketterson's spouse and research partner. The two began conducting research on juncos in 1979 at the Mountain Lake Biological Station, located in the mountain forests of Virginia, and many of the researchers making field and lab appearances in the film were mentored by the couple. Ketterson and Nolan's work is featured in the "Appalachian Spring" segment of the piece, while Atwell's study of the UCSD urban juncos can be found in the "Evolution-In-Action" module.

"The Junco Project does a superb job of converting a common and widespread backyard bird into a lively textbook about evolution, animal behavior, genetics, and even our own biological makeup," says John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. "We travel to habitats all over North America and learn in just a few spellbinding minutes how much a rapidly evolving bird can teach us—from how the body works to how new species form. I've never seen a more exciting demonstration of the fact that absolutely nothing in nature is 'ordinary.' Ellen Ketterson is a master scientist and educator, and it's a thrill to see her life's work, and that of her many colleagues, come together in such an engaging way for the global public."

The documentary and its supplementary educational materials are now ready for distribution and can be viewed online at the project's permanent web portal. Sarah Kapenga, a biology teacher from Michigan, has nothing but praise for the project, saying, "Using the Junco Project in my class has brought to life a topic that students used to believe was as dead as Charles Darwin himself. They are fascinated to not only see current research by 'regular guys' (as they would say), but to themselves be hands-on with the data and research as the story unfolds. They are part of the discovery process, and they feel included as part of the model building process. As a teacher, there is simply no better vehicle to meeting the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) than the Junco Project."

The National Science Foundation provided external funding for the documentary. IU groups that also supported the project included the Office of the Vice Provost for Research, the College of Arts and Sciences Themester program, the Department of Biology, the Department of Telecommunications, and the Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior. The video chapters have already received over 42,000 views online, and the feature-length film won first prize in the Non-Commercial Category at the annual Animal Behavior Film Festival competition, held as part of the 50th Annual Conference of the Animal Behavior Society. Ketterson and Atwell are seeking additional funding to support the film's distribution to public and student audiences worldwide, including online, at national and international film festivals and educator conferences, and for television broadcast on PBS local and national schedules. Further, the group also hopes to update and expand the teacher resource materials, particularly now that the new Next Generation Science Standards are finalized.

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