Corinne Mayer

Male House Finch. Photo by Bonnie Fairbanks

Undergraduate student's research takes flight with help of house finches


Chirping birds can be one of the most iconic sounds of spring, but one undergraduate student worries about what happens when the chirping stops.

Corinne Mayer, a senior in biological sciences in the College of Science, has spent the last couple years working with Dana Hawley, an associate professor in that department, studying the contraction of Mycoplasma gallisepticum in house finches. Mycoplasma gallisepticum, or MG, causes conjunctivitis around the eye and affects anti-predator behavior in finches, causing large amounts of eastern United States populations to die off.

“In the wild they’re dying due to disease, but in the lab the disease doesn’t seem inherently fatal,” Mayer said. “We’re trying to figure out what else contributes to it in the wild. We do know that it causes lethargy, which can cause the finches to be preyed upon.”

Mayer first started working with Hawley and postdoctoral scholar James Adelman in her sophomore year. With her already-present passion for veterinary science and exotic animals, Hawley’s research in wildlife disease grabbed Mayer’s attention. Once she began working in the lab, she threw herself into the research.

"Corinne is one of the most dedicated and independent undergraduate researchers I have ever worked with.  She had to arrive before sunrise on numerous days to complete her behavioral observations during the time of day when birds are most active.  She spent hundreds of hours watching videos in order to quantify how birds behave in response to the threat of predation, and her talent and dedication earned her the opportunity to present her work at the ACC Meeting of the Minds."

The MOM Conferences are historically highly competitive, and students are often chosen through a refereeing process. Mayer, along with seven other undergraduate researchers, is representing Virginia Tech at the annual research conference this month. She says that she finds real value in the collaboration with other researchers, and hopes that hers will be valuable too.

"Corinne is filling an important gap in our understanding of wildlife disease ecology by showing that pathogens can lead to population declines in their host by altering the ability of infected hosts to avoid predators,” Hawley said. “These kinds of indirect effects of disease on mortality are likely widespread, but not well documented. "

Mayer agrees that there is a concerning lack of research when it comes to the deadly disease. “There haven’t been very many studies looking at the internal effects of MG. We’re hoping that our findings will lead to more investigation regarding what’s going on because of the disease, and also lead to a greater understanding of its inner workings,” Mayer said.  

"Corinne's work sits at the intersection of two historically separate fields- wildlife disease ecology and animal behavior- by asking how a common wildlife disease of birds alters the ability of a bird to detect and avoid predators,” Hawley said.

After graduation in May, Mayer plans to attend veterinary school at Virginia Tech. As for after school, Mayer likes to keep her options open. “I’d like to focus on wildlife disease, zoo animals, or maybe exotic animals. I’ve never worked with birds before working with Dr. Hawley, but the research has really piqued my interest in them. I’ve also always had a soft spot for endangered animals, so I could see myself doing something with conservation.”

Written by Audra Norris, Fralin Communications Assistant