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REU Biology Program

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Biology Research Experience for Undergraduates Program

The Research Experience for Undergraduates Program in Systematics and Evolutionary Biology is funded by the National Science Foundation and has been in place for 25 years. Our program brings approximately eight students to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City each summer for a ten-week experience working with our curators, faculty, and post-doctoral fellows.

Research projects span diverse fields of comparative biology including paleontology, genomics, population biology, conservation biology, and phylogenetics and taxonomy. Students have access to the Museum's immense natural history collections as well as state-of-the-art equipment for advanced imaging (CT scanner, SEM, TEM) and genomics (Sanger and pyrosequencing platforms).

Students receive a $5000 traineeship stipend, as well as per diem costs for housing and meals, relocation expenses, and transportation subsidies. Housing is made available at nearby Columbia University. In addition to conducting original research projects throughout the summer, students also participate in formal instruction in systematics and evolution, and receive training in ethics, networking, communication, and other career-building skills.

Who Should Apply

All students in the program must be U.S. citizens, U.S. nationals or permanent residents of the United States. Students must be entering or continuing in an Associates or Baccalaureate degree program following their summer internship. As part of the National Science Foundation's commitment to broadening participation in STEM fields, we especially encourage students who come from community colleges, undergraduate-only institutions, and minority-serving institutions to apply. Download and review the instructions below, and then apply online.  For assistance with application process, contact [email protected].

Application deadline has been extended through Feb. 7

 2020 Project Titles

Finding Nemo's Home: Evolution and Species Delimitation of Clownfish-hosting Sea Anemones

Clownfishes nestle amongst sea anemones.

Mentors: Estefania Rodriquez and Benjamin Titus (Division of Invertebrate Zoology)

The clownfish-sea anemone symbiosis is an icon of tropical coral reefs of the Indo-West Pacific and one of the most recognizable symbiotic relationships on the planet. There are 30 described species of clownfishes, which have adaptively radiated to live with sea anemones, but only 10 nominal species of host anemones. Why have the host anemones not undergone a radiation similar to the clownfishes?

Given the co-dependent nature of the mutualism, their broad geographic and ecological distribution, extensive phenotypic variation, and that all 10 host species are only described morphologically, we hypothesize that there is undescribed cryptic species-level diversity within the host anemones. Using high-throughput sequencing (e.g. RADseq, Ultra Conserved Elements), molecular species delimitation, and morphological investigations, we will search for cryptic sea anemone species and reconstruct the evolutionary histories of the three most common sea anemone host species from the tropical Indo-West Pacific (IWP) oceans: the bubble-tip anemone Entacmaea quadricolor, the leathery anemone Heteractis crispa, and the magnificent anemone Heteractis magnifica.

Samples that have been previously collected from throughout the IWP will be used to search for cryptic species and test for signatures of diversification via allopatry and ecological speciation. Much of our understanding of this symbiosis, and by extension, the fundamental evolutionary and ecological theory that has been derived using these relationships as model study systems, is centered on the assumption that we have full knowledge of the interacting species. However, no molecular or genomic research exists that focuses on population level questions of tropical sea anemone species worldwide.

If hidden species-level diversity exists in the host anemones, it has the potential to transform our understanding of this important mutualism, and marine symbioses more broadly. Further, the charismatic nature of the symbiosis and its cinematic popularization have made it among the most heavily sought after organisms in the ornamental aquarium trade. This data will have important conservation implications and will directly support management of the ornamental aquarium trade; an economically important industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars each year. REU students involved in this project will participate primarily on genomic and morphological aspects of this research. Students will be trained in high-throughput genomic sequencing and computational analyses, as well as traditional aspects of sea anemone taxonomy, morphology, and classification.


Systematics and Evolution of Arachnids

Spider fights a scorpion.

Mentors: Ricardo Botero-Trujillo, Pio Colmenares, Lorenzo Prendini (Division of Invertebrate Zoology)

Arachnids, the second most diverse group of terrestrial animals, after insects, inhabit every terrestrial ecosystem and are tremendously important ecologically and economically, performing vital ecosystem services by keeping insect populations in check. Many arachnids are habitat specialists, extremely range-restricted and often micro-endemic to areas with particular geography, vegetation and climate. As such, arachnids are bioindicators of habitat degradation and climate change. Some of the most ancient arthropods, and the earliest to colonize land, were arachnids, e.g. scorpions, derived from aquatic ancestors that lived more than 425 million years ago.

Different arachnid taxa have followed separate evolutionary paths, some hardly changing morphologically from fossil forms, whereas others are greatly modified. Many arachnids are increasingly threatened by habitat destruction and harvesting for the exotic pet trade, which taken together with their often low vagility and narrow geographic distributions, exacerbates their risk of extinction due to human activities. In a time of accelerating deforestation and global warming, arachnids offer an important window on our changing world. The task of inventorying arachnid diversity and distribution is a priority if steps towards their conservation are to be implemented.

Improving baseline knowledge about arachnids, a primary aim of the AMNH arachnology lab, requires scholars curious and motivated to be involved in research projects in arachnid systematics and evolutionary biology. During the summer, students will undertake projects assessing the taxonomy and phylogeny of particular arachnid taxa (e.g. camel spiders, hooded tick spiders, scorpions, whip scorpions or whip spiders) involving (1) morphological examination, measurement, microscopy and imaging of arachnid specimens, (2) genomic DNA extraction and sequencing, and (3) mapping and GIS analysis of distributions.


Re-evaluating Human Evolution: The Role of Postcranial Data in Reconstructing Hominin Evolutionary Relationships

Hominin fossil specimens.

Mentor: Carrie Mongle (Division of Anthropology)

One of the fundamental goals of anthropological research is to elucidate humanity’s biological origins and evolution. Our understanding of the major trends and transitions that characterize early human evolution is largely based on the phylogenetic analysis of craniodental data. Nevertheless, one of the earliest adaptive signatures of the hominin lineage is bipedalism. Accordingly, many early hominin species are recognized on the basis of their postcranial anatomy (e.g., Orrorin tugenensis). Similarly, although Australopithecus sediba has been proposed as ancestral to the genus Homo on the basis of craniodental anatomy, many have argued that it retains a very “australopith-like” postcranial skeleton, which may suggest a different phylogenetic placement.

This represents a critical disconnect between the morphology used to characterize hominin species and the data used to reconstruct their evolutionary relationships. Despite the importance of the postcranial skeleton in human evolution, no study has ever incorporated postcranial evidence into phylogenetic reconstructions of hominin relationships. Given that the outcome of a phylogenetic analysis is entirely dependent on the morphological data that goes into it, this represents a fundamental gap in our understanding of how hominins evolved. The REU student working on this project will gain hands-on experience collecting human, hominin, and primate morphological data. They will acquire a strong background in human evolution. Basic knowledge of human anatomy, as well as photography skills, would be a plus. 


Examining the Relationship Between the Body Shape and Environmental Temperature

Illustration of the skeleton of a carnivoran species.

Mentor: Christopher Law (Division of Vertebrate Zoology)

Bergmann’s rule states that within species or populations of animals, individuals tend to be larger in cooler environments because of thermoregulation. Larger animals tend to lose less body heat due to their lower surface area to volume ratio compared to smaller animals, allowing them to retain body heat more efficiently in cold climates. However, tests for Bergmann’s rule have led to conflicting results, suggesting body size variation alone is not the only important determinant of heat loss across temperature gradients. Body shape is potentially just as important in driving/preventing heat loss as a more elongate body shape for a given size results in an increased surface area to volume ratio compared to a more robust body shape. Nevertheless, whether there is a pattern between body shape and environmental temperatures across individuals of a species or population has never been tested.

The goal of this project is to test the prediction that individuals within a carnivoran species that occur in cooler environments will exhibit more elongate bodies than individuals living in warmer climates. The student will learn to (1) collect morphological data from osteological specimens, (2) conduct literature reviews, (3) perform statistical analyses using command-line approaches in R, and (4) interpret and present results.


Relating Insect Wing Sensilla to Flight Ability

Diagram illustrates the relation of insect wing sensilla to flight ability.

Mentors: Hollister Herhold (RGGS), Steve Davis and David Grimaldi (Division of Invertebrate Zoology)

With nearly one million described species, insects represent the largest arthropod lineage. The evolution of flight is believed to be one of the major reasons behind this diversity. Although most hexapods in the class Insecta possess wings (some having secondarily lost them), their flight abilities are variable. Flight performance is attributable to many things, such as certain wing modifications, e.g., reduction of the hind wings to halteres in Diptera, hardening of the fore wings to elytra in Coleoptera, etc., as well as variation in wing sensilla distribution.

This project aims to document the campaniform sensilla on the wings of various insect groups and compare their distribution to several aspects of flight ability, such as wing shape and wing beat frequency. In order to accomplish this work, dissections will be made of wings and imaged using light and scanning electron microscopy. Wing shape variation will be analyzed using morphometrics and live imaging will be done to determine wing beat frequency of selected taxa. 


Dragonfly Evolution: Evaluating Flight Behavior Via Studies of Wing Venation

Dragonfly perches on the end of stem.

Mentor: Jessica Ware (Division of Invertebrate Zoology)

There are over 6000 species of Odonata, comprising two suborders (damselflies and dragonflies). In this project, we will use light microscopy, scanning electron microscopy and ct scanning to evaluate patterns of venation and wing features among several families of Odonata. Wings will be excised and scanned, to be incorporated in a larger database of wing venation. Statistical analyses will be conducted. With these data we will assess flight behaviors associated with particular wing vein patterns. 


Keeping Clean: Patterns of Dragonfly and Damselfly Tibial Setal Morphology

CT scan of the small tibial setae of Odonata nymphs.

Mentor: Jessica Ware (Department of Invertebrate Zoology)

Odonata nymphs have small tibial setae that are used for, among other things, cleaning their eyes and mouthparts. The morphology of these setae seem to vary based on evolutionary history. Here, we will evaluate the size, shape, number and arrangement of setae using scanning electron morphology, ct scanning and light microscopy. Nymphs will be collected locally from NY/NJ and small experiments will be conducted to test how different setal types function in cleaning


Human Transformation of the Biosphere: Dimensions, Solutions, and Prospects for Sustainability

Human footprint in sand.

Mentor: Joel Cracraft (Division of Vertebrate Zoology)

This study involves an empirical analysis of the global trends that are transforming the biosphere and geosphere and what they jointly imply for the future.  The study involves a broad range of data about how human activities have affected, over time, the loss of terrestrial and marine ecosystems and their reciprocal impacts on human systems. These trends have led some to postulate “tipping points” that will lead to accelerated “collapse” of human support systems. At the same time, there exists a massive global scientific and nonscientific response to establish scientific, economic and cultural structures that can achieve a sustainable path forward.

This study will evaluate the empirical bases of these approaches. The successful applicant will have a background in the environmental sciences as well as relevant human systems such as ecological economics, sustainability, conservation, or policy.


The Blood and Guts of Parasite Metagenomics 

Illustration layers a rendering of vertebrate host DNA on top of a microscopic view of the guts of leeches collected from the wild.

Mentors: Kalani Williams and Mai Fahmy (Division of Invertebrate Zoology)

Our lab has been developing strategies for the metagenomic detection of vertebrate host DNA in the guts of leeches collected from the wild, as well as of parasites in tissues of vertebrate hosts. This summer’s intern will engage both in next-generation sequencing of amplicons for the detection of several parasite groups: myxozoans, microscopic obligately parasitic cnidarians (sister to jellyfish) that cause a myriad of pathologies like whirling disease; and vertebrate blood parasites (like malaria and trypanosomiasis) detectable in the bloodmeals of leeches from several rainforests in Madagascar.

The objectives are to maximize parasite amplification from DNA isolations and minimize amplification of off-target DNA. The REU student will be involved in DNA isolations of a variety of tissues, PCR amplification and next-generation amplicon sequencing. Additionally, the intern will apply bioinformatics to separate host from parasite reads, determine the identity of the organisms and compare diversity across sites.


How to Grow a Trilobite: Testing Models of Complex Development in Fossil Arthropods

Scan of a trilobite specimen.

Mentor: Melanie Hopkins (Division of Paleontology)

Arthropods are invertebrate animals with an exoskeleton, paired jointed appendages, and a segmented body. The final segmental composition of the body in many arthropods is attained during post-embryonic development through a series of molts. Hemianamorphic arthropods are characterized by undergoing a phase of molts during which new segments are added to the body followed by a phase during which molting continues without further increase in the number of body segments. Arthropods with this mode of segmentation occur across the phylum, including some crustaceans, some myriapods, and some extinct arthropods like trilobites.

Trilobites, in particular, have been useful for studying this mode of segmentation because their exoskeleton was highly biomineralized from an early post-embryonic stage, and thus they have a rich fossil record that includes complete developmental series for many species. Further, we can estimate growth rates for particularly abundant species. Currently we are using this information to model growth in trilobites and predict adult body size and body proportions. The REU student would help collect size data from museum specimens and literature, in order to leverage this model to answer questions about the evolution of growth and body size in trilobites throughout their evolutionary history.


Exploring Evolutionary Links Among Landing Biomechanics, Wing Anatomy and Roosting Ecology of Bats

Left: Bat in flight. Right: Bat skeleton.

Mentors: Nancy Simmons and David Boerma (Division of Vertebrate Zoology)

Animal anatomy (form), movement (function), and environment (ecology) change together over the course of evolution. Each of these pieces are individually important but learning how they are linked can shed light on what sparks the rapid appearance of new species, evolutionary periods called adaptive radiations. This research project takes advantage of the breathtaking diversity of bats to explore how form, function, and ecology have been linked over the course of bat evolution through the lens of biomechanics of landing behavior. There are more than 1400 living bat species (over 20% of all living mammals) that live on every continent except Antarctica. Part of what allows bats to colonize varied regions and habitats is that they evolved diverse roosting habits.

In this project, we will use high resolution micro Computed Tomography (µCT) scans to explore the extent to which the evolution of diverse roosting habits (ecology) is connected to the evolution of wing bone morphology (form) and landing biomechanics (function). The REU student will be involved with all aspects of the project, including selecting and preparing preserved specimens, collecting and processing µCT scans, building and extracting measurements from digital bone models, and conducting phylogenetic analyses to test evolutionary hypotheses. The ideal student is patient, inquisitive, and enthusiastic, and might have prior experience with vertebrate anatomy (human anatomy counts), basic statistics, and coding in R and/or MATLAB. However, experience in these areas is not strictly required.


Developing New Methods to Monitor Fine-Scale Movement of Wildlife in Black Rock Forest 

Eastern box turtle makes its way across ground covered with small rocks.

Mentors: Drs. Suzanne Macey (Center for Biodiversity and Conservation)­Christopher Raxworthy (Division of Vertebrate Zoology) and Dr. Matt Palmer, Columbia University

Black Rock Forest, a living laboratory for field-based research approximately an hour north of NYC, is installing 20 self-powered “nodes” for a new “wire-less mesh" network. These low-cost cutting-edge networks will provide researchers with real-time data from their existing environmental monitoring stations, but can also provide an opportunity to test the network’s ability to accurately monitor fine-scale movements of animals.

In this project, our goal is to monitor the movements of understudied and often rare terrestrial animals (such as Eastern Box Turtles) in a comparative way across species. The participating student would be based at Black Rock for part of the internship and acquire skills relating to field and data analysis methods involved in movement ecology and demographic studies of wildlife.


Museum Phylogenomics of Lorisiforms to Inform Conservation

The brown greater galago (Otolemur crassicaudatus), a nocturnal primate, crouches between the branches of a tree.

Mentor: Dr. Mary Blair 

Galagos and lorises (lorisiforms) are elusive nocturnal primates. Their evolutionary history has not been studied comprehensively, leaving a significant knowledge gap about primate evolution. This project will utilize the Museum's collections to produce genomic data for representatives of this understudied group, allowing unprecedented study of their evolutionary history, species diversity, and biogeography. The REU student will have the opportunity to extract, sequence, and analyze genomic DNA from galago and loris Museum specimens. The results of the project will not only improve our understanding of the diversity and evolution of this poorly known group, it will also help to inform the conservation management of lorisiforms that are endangered with extinction.