Prof. Tasha Gownaris ’09 receives research grant to investigate the effect of climate change on seabirds

A common tern carries a moth on Petit Manan Island
A common tern (Sterna hirundo) carries a moth on Petit Manan Island, Maine. Herring and hake are the preferred prey of terns and their chicks, but climate change is leading to shifts in food availability. As a result, terns often need to feed their chicks lower quality, invertebrate prey.

Environmental Studies Prof. Tasha Gownaris ’09 has received a 2023 Charles E. Kaufman Foundation New Investigator research grant, awarded by the Foundation’s scientific advisory board and the board of directors, to advance her research, “Behavioral Plasticity as a Mechanism for Adaptation in Rapidly Changing Environments.” Gownaris’ studies focus on the impacts of climate change on seabirds breeding in the Gulf of Maine. The two-year grant of approximately $150,000 will enable Gownaris to explore how seabirds adapt their foraging behavior in response to rapid shifts in the environment, referred to as behavioral plasticity.

“I am thrilled and honored to have received a Charles E. Kaufman Foundation New Investigator research grant and thankful to the Foundation for valuing research at primarily undergraduate institutions,” said Gownaris.

Gownaris uses a combination of tools to better understand how the diet and foraging behavior of seabirds is changing, including stable isotope analysis, chick provisioning watches, and GPS tagging. She presented the preliminary results of this research at the World Seabird Twitter Conference in 2022, sharing how seabirds’ responses to warming waters and shifting prey can impact the growth and survival of their offspring.

Jocelyn Little (’25) releases a common tern
Jocelyn Little (’25), an environmental studies major, releases a common tern with its newly attached GPS tag harness. GPS tags provide information on tern locations every 10 minutes, allowing Gownaris and her team to track their foraging behavior.

“The data we collect will also inform ongoing spatial management in the region, including the placement of wind farms that can alter seabird foraging behavior,” she said.

Funding from the grant will allow Gownaris to build and sustain her research program in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She’ll also continue to engage current Gettysburg Environmental Studies Department majors and students from other departments in her research. Through this student-faculty research collaboration, Gettysburg College students will have the opportunity to build skills in fieldwork and data science.

“The funding from this grant will support the involvement of Gettysburg College students from multiple departments in meaningful research—whether in the field, in the lab, or at the computer,” said Gownaris. “Several students will complete capstone projects or honors theses connected to the project and will have the opportunity to present their work at professional conferences.”

The Charles E. Kaufman Foundation, a supporting organization of The Pittsburgh Foundation, supports research, like Gownaris’ work, in biology, chemistry, and physics at Pennsylvania institutions of higher education. Foundation grants provide funding support for new investigator and new initiative research.

Learn how Gownaris collaborated with Gettysburg College’s Cross-Disciplinary Science Institute (X-SIG) on seabird research.

By Michael Vyskocil
Photos provided by Environmental Studies Prof. Tasha Gownaris ’09
Posted: 12/15/23

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