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Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology
Cambridge, MA 02138

Home

Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows

Harvard University

Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology

Museum of Comparative Zoology

Email: mstoddard at fas.harvard.edu

 

View my CV.
View my Google Scholar profile.
2013 L'Oréal USA For Women In Science Fellow. View my video here.

A Reed Warbler feeds a Common Cuckoo chick. © D. Kjaer.

A Reed Warbler feeds a Common Cuckoo chick.
© D. Kjaer.

A Great Black-backed Gull on Appledore Island, ME.  © M. C. Stoddard.

A Great Black-backed Gull on Appledore Island, ME. 
© M. C. Stoddard.

A Peacock's tail feathers. © M. C. Stoddard.

A Peacock's tail feathers.
© M. C. Stoddard.

TETRACOLORSPACE © M. C. Stoddard.

TETRACOLORSPACE
© M. C. Stoddard.

A Murre egg.  © Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University/M. C. Stoddard.

A Murre egg. 
© Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University/M. C. Stoddard.

An SEM image of an eggshell surface. © M. C. Stoddard.

An SEM image of an eggshell surface.
© M. C. Stoddard.

 

RESEARCH

I am an evolutionary biologist. I use a multidisciplinary approach to explore key questions in evolution, behavior and sensory ecology, with a focus on visual communication and signaling. My research topics include avian color vision and plumage evolution, brood parasitism and coevolution, mimicry and camouflage, and individual recognition. I also have a deep interest in the relationship between the structure and function of phenotypic traits, which I investigate currently in avian eggshells. My work incorporates techniques from computer science, mathematics, mechanical engineering, genomics and behavioral ecology.



EDUCATION

In 2008, I received my undergraduate degree from Yale University, where I researched avian vision and plumage color evolution at the Peabody Museum of Natural History. I received a Marshall Scholarship and an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship to study at the University of Cambridge, where I completed my PhD research in 2012. In Cambridge, I was a member of Gonville and Caius College. I joined the Harvard Society of Fellows in 2012.

 
Stoddard.jpeg

RESEARCH INTERESTS

Avian vision and the evolution of color

Birds are among the most colorful organisms in nature. In addition, they possess an ancient and sophisticated visual system that differs dramatically from our own. Unlike humans, birds have a fourth color cone in their retinas that is sensitive to ultraviolet wavelengths. Most diurnal birds thus appear to be tetrachromatic (four color cone-types), compared to trichromatic humans.

I am interested in using models of avian color perception to understand the evolution and diversity of plumage coloration. How colorful are birds, from the avian visual perspective? What constrains the evolution of plumage coloration? What roles have pigmentary and structural colors played in the evolution of the avian plumage palette? To investigate these questions, I use a quantitative model of avian tetrahedral color space – for which I developed the TetraColorSpace computer program (Stoddard & Prum 2008), see below – to describe phylogenetic patterns of color evolution both in smaller clades (e.g., New World buntings) and at broader taxonomic scales.

Birds exhibit diverse plumage colors, which are created by a range of pigmentary and structural mechanisms. Photo credit: D. Kjaer.

Birds exhibit diverse plumage colors, which are created by a range of pigmentary and structural mechanisms. Photo credit: D. Kjaer.

Brood parasitism and coevolution

The Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) is a notorious brood parasite that sneaks its eggs into the nests of other species. I am investigating the visual signals involved in Cuckoo egg mimicry, particularly with respect to egg color and pattern. My colleagues and I have been developing new computational tools for analyzing egg visual signals as seen by birds, which we are using to better understand recognition and behavior exhibited by host birds.

 
Common cuckoos sneak their eggs into the nests of other species. Cuckoo eggs (left-hand column) are often, but not always, an excellent match (to a bird’s eye) to eggs laid by host birds (right-hand column). A Common Cuckoo chick begs for food from its foster parent, a Reed Warbler. Photo credit: D. Kjaer (cuckoo chick) and M. C. Stoddard (eggs), copyright of the NHM. From Stoddard 2012.

Common cuckoos sneak their eggs into the nests of other species. Cuckoo eggs (left-hand column) are often, but not always, an excellent match (to a bird’s eye) to eggs laid by host birds (right-hand column). A Common Cuckoo chick begs for food from its foster parent, a Reed Warbler. Photo credit: D. Kjaer (cuckoo chick) and M. C. Stoddard (eggs), copyright of the NHM. From Stoddard 2012.

 

Evolution and engineering of avian eggs

I am interested in the mechanistic and functional basis of avian egg diversity. With collaborators at Harvard and at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, I am investigating genomic, physiological, and structural aspects of avian egg evolution. This research combines theoretical modeling with empirical work in the lab and field, and in particular makes use of the extraordinary egg and nest collections of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology.

 
An SEM image of an eggshell cross section. Image credit: Stoddard/Skepper.

An SEM image of an eggshell cross section. Image credit: Stoddard/Skepper.

 
 

PUBLICATIONS

Google Scholar profile

Stoddard, M. C., R. M. Kilner, and C. Town. 2014. Pattern recognition algorithm reveals how birds evolve individual egg pattern signatures. Nature Communications. DOI: 10.1038/ncomms5117. Covered by Nature, Science, Smithsonian, Natural History Museum, AAAS Science Update Radio, ABC News, Wired. Link

Ellis, J. C., S. M. Bogdanowicz, M. C.  Stoddard, and L. W. Clark. In Press. Hybridization of a Lesser Black-backed Gull and Herring Gulls in Eastern North America. Wilson Journal of Ornithology.

Johnstone, R., A. Manica, A. Fayet, M. C. Stoddard, M. Rodríguez-Gironés, C. Hinde. 2013. Reciprocity, turn-taking and conditional cooperation between great tit parents. Behavioral Ecology 25: 216-222. pdf

Hanley, D., M. C. Stoddard, P. Cassey, and P. Brennan. 2013. Eggshell conspicuousness in ground nesting birds: do conspicuous eggshells signal nest location to conspecifics? Avian Biology Research 6: 147-156. pdf

Stoddard, M. C., and R. M. Kilner. 2013. The past, present and future of ‘cuckoos versus reed warblers’. Animal Behaviour 85: 693-699. pdf

Stournaras, K. E., E. Lo, K. Böhning-Gaese, E. Cazetta, D. M.Dehling, M. Schleuning, M. C. Stoddard, M. J. Donoghue, R. O. Prum, and H. M. Schaefer. 2013. How colorful are fruits? Limited color diversity in fleshy fruits on local and global scales. New Phytologist. pdf

Mendes-Pinto, M. M., A. M. LaFountain, M. C. Stoddard, R. O. Prum, H. A. Frank, and B. Robert. 2012. Variation in carotenoid-protein interaction in bird feathers produces novel plumage coloration. Journal of The Royal Society Interface 9: 3338-3350. pdf

Prum, R.O., A. Fountain, J. Berro, M. C. Stoddard, and H. Frank. 2012. Molecular diversity, metabolic transformation, and evolution of carotenoid feather pigments in cotingas (Aves: Cotingidae). Journal of Comparative Physiology B. pdf

Stoddard, M. C. 2012. Mimicry and masquerade from the avian visual perspective. Current Zoology 58: 630-648. pdf

Stoddard M. C., A. Fayet, R. M. Kilner, and C. Hinde. 2012. Egg speckling patterns do not advertise offspring quality or influence male provisioning in great tits. PLoS ONE 7: e40211. pdf

Stoddard, M. C., K. Marshall, and R. M. Kilner. 2011. Imperfectly camouflaged avian eggs: artefact or adaptation? Avian Biology Research 4: 196-213. pdf

Stoddard, M. C., and R. O. Prum. 2011. How colorful are birds? Evolution of the avian plumage color gamut. Behavioral Ecology 22: 1042-1052. Covered by Science in Editor’s Choice (“The Plumage Rainbow,” 1 July 2011), AAAS Science Update Radio. pdf

Stoddard, M. C., and M. Stevens. 2011. Avian vision and the evolution of egg color mimicry in the common cuckoo. Evolution 65: 2004-2013. Covered by BBC Earth and Science News, BBC Radio 5 Live, CBC Radio (Canada) and NPR (USA). pdf

Stoddard, M. C., and M. Stevens. 2010. Pattern mimicry of host eggs by the common cuckoo, as seen through a bird’s eye. Proceedings of the Royal Society, Series B 277: 1387-93. Covered by BBC News Big Picture and the New York Times. pdf

Stevens, M., M. C. Stoddard, and J.P. Higham. 2009. Studying primate color: towards visual system-dependent methods. International Journal of Primatology 30: 893–917. pdf

Stoddard, M. C., and R. O. Prum. 2008. Evolution of avian plumage color in a tetrahedral color space: a phylogenetic analysis of New World buntings. American Naturalist 171: 755–776. pdf

Ellis, J. C., M. C. Stoddard, and L. W. Clark. 2008. Breeding by a lesser black-backed gull (Larus fuscus) on the Atlantic coast of North America. North American Birds 61: 546-548. pdf

PDFs are for personal use only.

 

SOFTWARE AND TOOLS

The visual systems of birds, many other reptiles, and many fish include four color-sensitive retinal cone-types. As a consequence, their color vision is more complex than human color vision. In collaboration with Richard Prum, I developed a new computational tool – based on a well-described tetrahedral color space model (Goldsmith 1990; Endler and Mielke 2005) – that allows users to model visual color stimuli for these tetrahedral visual systems.

TetraColorSpace is a computer program developed for the tetrahedral analysis of colors measured from reflectance spectra or from four cone stimulus values, using MATLAB 7 software (MathWorks, Natick, MA). TetraColorSpace can analyze colors based on ultraviolet or violet cone-type avian visual systems, or can use cone-sensitivity functions input by the user. TetraColorSpace provides an assortment of quantitative analyses and graphical tools for describing color stimulus variation and diversity. Details are available in Stoddard and Prum (2008).

TetraColorSpace is provided for free here (download the MATLAB m-file or text file) and the manual is available here. When using the program, please cite the original publication:

Stoddard, M. C. and Prum, R. O. 2008. Evolution of avian plumage color in a tetrahedral color space: A phylogenetic analysis of new world buntings. American Naturalist, 171, 755-776.

 
Avian gamut_Stoddard
 

NaturePatternMatch is a pattern recognition program which extracts and compares recognizable features in visual scenes, approximating some processes known to be important for recognition tasks in vertebrates. Please visit www.naturepatternmatch.org for details. When using the program, please cite the original publication:

Stoddard, M. C., R. M. Kilner, and C. Town. 2014. Pattern recognition algorithm reveals how birds evolve individual egg pattern signatures. Nature Communications. DOI: 10.1038/ncomms5117.

 

CONTACT INFO AND OPPORTUNITIES

My work provides many avenues for undergraduate involvement. Interested students are encouraged to contact me to discuss research projects and opportunities. 

Please email me at: mstoddard at fas.harvard.edu