Five grantees receive ECWG exploration research awards for 2015


Grace Capshaw, University of Maryland, Biology. “Hearing in caves: auditory evolution in cave-adapted lungless salamanders (family Plethodontidae)”, Tennessee, $785.

Animals rely on sensory information to respond to environmental stimuli and to guide behavior. Selective pressures influence sensory evolution to facilitate detection of stimuli within the constraints of the environment; however, the extent of sensory variation in closely related animals that occupy different habitats remains poorly understood. This project will examine the auditory system of plethodontid salamanders living under different sensory constraints, specifically cave salamanders and their surface dwelling relatives. The plethodontid family represents a unique opportunity to study auditory evolution independent of vocal communication because it is species rich, widely distributed, and displays high ecological diversity in habitat use. Comparative analysis of auditory variation in species living under different levels of environmental constraint may reveal the selective pressures that induce sensory adaptation. The proposed work will address questions of sensory variation and adaptation within an ecologically-relevant framework and will generate conclusions pertaining to environmental influence on auditory evolution.


Madeleine Gunter, William and Mary, Anthropology. “Settlement stability and floodplain dynamism: A geoarchaeology study of ‘persistent places’ in the Virginia Piedmont”, Virginia, $1700.

This project combines geological and archaeological methods to examine the long-term settlement histories of Siouan-speaking Native communities in Virginia’s Dan River drainage between AD 800—1600. Invoking Schlanger’s (1992) concept of “persistent places,” locales made meaningful through their occupation and reoccupation through time, this research seeks to understand why Piedmont communities reoccupied floodplain village sites along the Dan and its tributaries—despite environmental and sociopolitical disadvantages (annual flooding, proximity to hostile groups from the North). By extracting and analyzing a series of sediment cores from across the site’s main floodplain, this project seeks to contextualize the site’s various archaeological features–evidence of relatively stable occupation–within the region’s dynamic fluvial history. Though regionally and methodologically focused, this project is significant because it joins a broader conversation about the nature of human/environment interaction that seeks to understand how past humans shaped, and were shaped by, the landscapes on which they lived.

Melanie Jackson, University of Maryland, Center for Environmental Science. “Determining the effect of ammonium on algal community composition and physiology in the Anacostia River in Washington DC”, District of Columbia, $2240.

It is well known that that the Anacostia River has poor water quality based on its history of toxins and pathogens; however, nutrient pollution, primarily in the form of nitrogen (N) has been less well recognized. In coastal ecosystems in general, nutrient pollution is known to lead to eutrophication and increased hypoxia and abundance of harmful algal bloom species. Excess N is one of the major pollution problems in the Anacostia River, largely due to sewage effluent and combined sewer overflows from both effluent and storm water runoff. This project aims to assess the sources and fates of N forms in the Anacostia River and their relationship with algal blooms. Anacostia River sampling will be combined with experiments involving enrichments with NH4+ and NO3 to evaluate the impact of N loads and forms on phytoplankton species composition and productivity. Considering the growing number and increasing frequency of harmful algal blooms worldwide, this research has implications for food web structure and productivity of coastal estuaries.

Chrisandra Kufeldt, George Washington University, Human Biology. “Does dental microstructure carry a phylogenetic signal?”, Arizona, Massachusetts, United Kingdom, $2774.

Sound hypotheses about phylogenetic relationships are necessary for understanding the comparative context of the evolutionary changes that have occurred within the hominin lineage. This project will combine a new suite of morphological characters derived from dental microstructure to test the efficacy of hard tissue characters for recovering evolutionary relationships among great apes and monkeys whose phylogeny is well established from genetic evidence. The objective of this study is to conduct a comprehensive study of enamel growth in primate samples in order to produce data to use in a phylogenetic analysis. The study sample suite for this project includes previously collected and sectioned thin sections of mandibular molars from great apes and species of both old world and new world monkeys. . Demonstrating the efficacy of these methods with a new suite of characters in a comparative context is critical for future application to the hominin fossil record, this is important considering paleoanthropology remains one of the few fields without reliable phylogenetic hypotheses


Joeva Rock, American University, Anthropology. “Sankofa: Utilizing traditional agricultural practice for modern development”, Ghana, $3750.

Food and farming are inherently social processes, but changes in agricultural practice in Ghana are changing ecological and cultural landscapes. As a result, Ghanaian farmers are opting out of cash-crop development schemes and instead turning to sustainable subsistence farming that draws on socio-cultural agricultural knowledge. The usefulness of local knowledge is contested. While some argue that it ought to be crucial a component of agricultural development, others disagree over the viability of the use of local knowledge and small-scale farms to meet modern needs. This project explores how Ghanaians define and pursue sustainable, culturally-relevant agricultural practice. Ethnographic research will be conducted in the Ghanaian capital of Accra and based out of the offices of ILK, a Ghanaian agricultural organization. This project employs two core methods: 1) participant observation at ILK to understand how sustainability and cultural values are defined and integrated in to practice, and 2) semi-structured interviews with farmers and with key actors in Ghanaian agricultural policy and programming spheres. By approaching agricultural development beyond production and consumption, and instead establishing food as a cultural cornerstone, this project will aid in designing and maintaining truly sustainable development interventions.

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