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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.