Charles Walcott

Professor Emeritus


Charles Walcott was named the university’s twelfth ombudsman in 2011. He received his bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and his Ph.D. from Cornell. He served on the faculties of Harvard University, Tufts University and the State University of New York at Stony Brook before coming to Cornell in 1981 as a full professor and Director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Walcott was named the Lab’s first Louis Agassiz Fuertes Director in 1992. He left that position in 1995 to resume teaching and research. He went on to lead the Division of Biological Sciences (1998-99) and the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior (1999-2001), before serving for three years as Associate Dean and Secretary of the University Faculty. He also served as Dean of the University Faculty (2003-08) and the Chair of the University Assembly (fall 2009 – spring 2011). Walcott is an expert on the territorial vocalizations of birds and animal navigation. Since his appointment in 2011 as Cornell’s Ombudsman, he has been an active member of the International Ombudsman Association (IOA).

Research Focus

Common House Spiders have sensitive vibration receptors on their legs. Because these spiders inhabit irregular “cobwebs”, vibrations from entangled prey are often not transmitted by web strands but rather travel to the spider as air-borne sound. This was a discovery that I made as a graduate student and I spent the next few years characterizing the receptor and how it worked. 

The next 30 years were spent investigating how homing pigeons released in unfamiliar territory find their way home. One approach was to put tiny radio transmitters on the pigeon and follow it on its homeward journey with radio direction finding equipment from an airplane. Nowadays, GPS devices are small enough for a pigeon to carry giving even more accurate path information less expensively!  Our research showed that pigeons used the sun as a compass reference but that if the sun was not visible, pigeons switched to a compass based on the earth’s magnetic field. But a compass is of little use unless you know the direction toward home. How pigeons do that is still controversial. We found that pigeons from one loft were disoriented at magnetic anomalies; places where the earth’s magnetic field was disturbed. Yet their siblings from a loft only a mile away, were well oriented at the anomaly. This suggests that under some circumstances the earth’s magnetic field may play some role in pigeon direction finding, but they also have alternative cues.

In recent years I have been studying the acoustic communication of Loons. Male loons have a characteristic territorial “yodel” which is different for each male. Yet when a male loon changes territory, it may change its yodel. This change is associated with the yodel of the male loon that was the previous resident of the territory as well as that of neighboring loons. If the intruding male’s yodel is different from that of the previous male and the neighbors, it doesn’t change. But if it is similar, it changes a lot. Exactly why this is important to the Loon is still mysterious.

Now, in retirement, I’ve returned to the spiders trying to understand more about their use of acoustic and vibration signals. I am also spending time making short videos of faculty and graduate research to post on CornellCast.

The Loon research has been summarized in a film that is available at:

Films Introduction:

For the past few years I have been making short films of faculty and student research at Cornell. These have all been posted on Cornell Cast ( In the hope that these might find a wider audience, I have gathered all the descriptions together here with a clickable link that will take you directly to the video. The descriptions are in no particular order.

If, for any reason, you wish to use any or part of these videos, I have the originals that were filmed in HD (1080 X 1920 60i) and I would be happy to make them available to you. If you wish particular shots or sequences I have all of these; many are longer and show more than was included in the finished films. Please just e-mail me at:

Foundations of Muslim Extremism and the Marginalization and Violence Against Women

Posted on December 7, 2015 By Cornell Association of Professors Emeriti (CAPE)

In a lecture to the Cornell Association of Professors Emeriti (CAPE) Nov. 19, 2015, research fellow Nimat Hafez Barazangi, argues that Muslim women issues are symptoms of the widespread crisis in understanding Islam, and that these issues, being the consequences of extremism on all fronts, are the active drive to understand the foundations of Muslim extremism. To better understand this crisis, she says, we need a radical shift in discourse to be able to analyze the mind-set of these extremist Muslims, the majority of whom are males.

Barazangi is the author of "Women’s Identity and Rethinking the Hadith."

More about the book: Woman’s Identity and Rethinking the Hadith


Mosquito research in Barton Hall

Posted on September 29, 2015 By Entomology, Neurobiology and Behavior

Barton Hall is used for many things: athletics, concerts, giant dinners, final exams. But mosquito research? Professors Ron Hoy (neurobiology and behavior) and Laura Harrington (entomology), together with a group of students and postdocs, took over Barton Hall for one night to test the hearing of mosquitoes. This film describes the process and the rather surprising result of their experiment.


Itai Cohen explains the physics of the Miura-ori fold

Posted on August 7, 2014 By Cornell Chronicle, Department of Physics

Cornell researchers are uncovering how origami principles could lead to exotic materials, soft robots and even tiny transformers.


Flight of the Fruit Fly

Posted on December 10, 2014 By College of Arts and Sciences (CAS), Department of Physics

We all take for granted that flies fly. And as anyone who has tried to swat a buzzing fly knows, flies are very good at maneuvering. So how do they do it? Cornell physicist Itai Cohen has used a combination of 3-D high-speed photography and experimental manipulations to find out. He explained the mechanics of insect flight to a Summer Session audience in a July, 2014 lecture.


How do plant roots find the quickest way down?

Posted on November 12, 2015 By Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, Department of Physics

Most plants grow towards the light, but roots have to grow down into the soil to find water and nutrients. How do they do this? And what happens to a growing root when it encounters a rock? In this video a group of investigators from the Physics Department and from the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research show us how plants manage to grow in Ithaca's rocky soil.


Birds can save the world

Posted on March 24, 2016 By Cornell Association of Professors Emeriti (CAPE), Lab of Ornithology

Birds can save the world. So says John Fitzpatrick, the Louis Agassiz Fuertes Director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. In his Feb. 18, 2016 lecture to the Cornell Association of Professors Emeriti, Fitzpatrick explains how. As part of the Lab’s e-Bird program, volunteers all over the world are reporting bird sightings. Based on this data, federal and local agencies are setting aside land from development and making other changes to protect bird species and hence the environment.


Publishing Scientific Papers

Posted on March 9, 2015

Nobel laureate Roald Hoffmann gives a personal reflection, with practical advice, on the publication process in science, including submission letters, anonymous review, dealing with editors, and the inevitable revision of a manuscript. Recorded Feb. 5, 2015 as part of the Career Advancement Program for Engineers and Scientists.


Net-casting spiders

Posted on September 23, 2016 By Neurobiology and Behavior

Net-casting spiders spin small webs which they hold with their four front legs. They plop these webs down on insects crawling nearby and also use them to catch flying insects. These spiders have enormous eyes that are about 2000 times more sensitive to light than ours. Jay Stafstrom, a researcher at the University of Nebraska, has found that blinded net-casting spiders cannot catch crawling prey, but are still perfectly capable of snaring flying insects. In Ron Hoy's lab at Cornell, Gil Menda has recorded from the spider's brain and found that they, like mosquitoes, are sensitive to low frequency sounds, but they are also sensitive to high frequencies, near 5,000 Hz. The function of this high frequency hearing is still a mystery.


Vision in Jumping Spiders

Posted on October 13, 2014 By Neurobiology and Behavior

Jumping spiders have superb vision--their lives depend on it. Jumping spiders are visual predators, stalking their prey before the final jump. Yet the neural basis of this behavior has been hard to examine. Spiders have a high internal pressure such that making a hole in the cuticle releases the pressure and proves fatal to the spider.

Gil Menda, a postdoctoral student in Ron Hoy's lab, managed to solve this problem, and now Gil and his colleagues have begun to investigate the physiology of the spider's visual system.


How oobleck works: The mystery of shear-thickening cornstarch solutions

Posted on December 3, 2015 By Department of Physics

When you mix cornstarch and water you get an unusual result. If you treat it gently, it behaves like a liquid. But if you are rough with it, it behaves like a solid. How can this be? Itai Cohen, associate professor of physics, and his graduate student, Neil Lin, demonstrate the phenomenon and explain the reasons behind it.


How to tame your Oobleck: Tunable shear thickening

Posted on September 14, 2016 By Department of Physics

Cornstarch and water make a remarkable mix. Treat it gently and it flows, handle it roughly and it shatters like a solid. In this video you will see a rotating cylinder being placed in cornstarch and water. The cornstarch mixture is so thick that the cylinder stalls; however, vibrations from a loudspeaker cause it to become sufficiently fluid that the cylinder will once again rotate. When the loudspeaker is on, the cylinder rotates; when it is off, the cylinder stalls. Prof. Itai Cohen explains what is going on.


Achieving Food Security for All in the Foreseeable Future

Posted on January 21, 2016 By Cornell Association of Professors Emeriti (CAPE)

Increasing food production is necessary but not sufficient for food security. To be food secure, households must have access to the quantity and kinds of food needed for a healthy and productive life. Very large stocks of food currently coexist with widespread food insecurity. Appropriate policies along with public and private investments are needed to enhance low-income people’s purchasing power or food production capacity.
Considering both the supply and demand sides, economist Per Pinstrup-Andersen discusses what it will take to achieve food security for all in the foreseeable future, Dec. 3, 2015 in a lecture to the Cornell Association of Professors Emeriti. Pinstrup-Andersen is the H. E. Babcock Professor of Food, Nutrition and Public Policy, the J. Thomas Clark Professor of Entrepreneurship, and Professor of Applied Economics at Cornell.


Nature as the Classroom: Goldenrod, Treehoppers and Ants

Posted on October 27, 2014 By College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), College of Arts and Sciences (CAS)

Classes in field biology are often very defined; go here, do that, measure this and come to this conclusion. Students in Anurag Agrawal's field ecology course observe treehoppers in a field of goldenrod and devise their own study, then collect data to answer the questions. The approach comes much closer to how real field biology is actually done.


Neural Control of Bird Song Learning

Posted on May 29, 2014 By Neurobiology and Behavior

Many species of birds learn their songs. Initially, they copy their parent's songs very imperfectly, a stage called babbling. But with practice and repetition they eventually get it right. Jesse Goldberg, in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, is studying the neural basis of bird song learning and points out that it bears many similarities to human learning.


Scientific writing seminar with Michal Lipson

Posted on April 28, 2016

Michal Lipson, professor of electrical engineering at Columbia University, gives a tutorial on scientific writing April 8, 2016. She emphasizes clarity, omitting unnecessary words and phrases, parallel construction and putting important ideas first. She gives examples and challenges the audience to improve them. Sponsored by the Cornell Center for Materials Research (CCMR).


Risks and Benefits of Shale Gas

In 2011, Howarth, Santoro, and Ingraffea published an estimated range of life-cycle methane emissions from development of natural gas, petroleum, and coal. They concluded that, even at the low end of their estimate, methane emissions from shale gas would make it the worst of the fossil fuels from a climate change point of view. They also concluded that their estimate was based on insufficient data and information because actual measurements of emissions on a national scale had never been done.

Others, including Cathles et al. at Cornell, disagreed, concluding that methane emissions were at levels where natural gas was the best of all fossil fuels from a climate change point of view. In the last 4 years many actual measurements of methane emissions have been made and new science on methane and climate change has been put forth.

Cathles and Ingraffea will review this evidence, reaching very different conclusions.


Walter Lynn Memorial Service

The memorial service of legendary CEE faculty member and Dean of the Facuty.


Sandra Vehrencamp, Professor Emerita, Neurobiology and Behavior

Prof Vehrencamp recounts the history of her interest in biology and animal behavior and then describes her academic career.


Stephen T. Emlen, Jacob Gould Sherman Professor Emeritus, Neurobiology and Behavior.

Professor Emlen describes his early interests in biology, his graduate training and his years as a faculty member at Cornell.


William T. Keeton House Grand Opening and Dedication at Cornell University

Greatly enhanced residential housing for undergraduate students has been provided on West Campus with the houses being named in honor of distinguished members of the Cornell faculty. William T. Keeton, Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor, renowned researcher of pigeon behavior and universally admired and respected teacher of the introductory courses in biology is honored by this naming.


Event Participants: Jefferson Cowie, Stephen T. Emlen, Release of Homing Pigeons, President David Skorton, Jerry A. Waldvogel, William Keeton (son), Baraka Kwa Wimbo Gospel Ensemble.


Howard Howland, Professor of Neurobiology and Behavior Emeritus

Prof. Howland describes his early years, educational background and academic history.


Jack W. Bradbury, Robert G. Engle Professor of Ornithology and Neurobiology emeritus.

Prof. Bradbury tells about his early years, his training at the Rockefeller University, an interlude at Cornell and then his move to University of California at San Diego. He was then enticed back to accept a position at Cornell.


Richard O’Brien, Professor and Former Chair, Neurobiology and Behavior, Director Division of Biological Science.

Richard O’Brien traces his history from an interest in farming to a position in Canada then in the United States. He came to Cornell in Biochemistry and was intimately involved in the founding of the Division of Biological Sciences and the Section of Neurobiology and Behavior. After a distinguished career at Cornell, he moved top the University of Rochester as provost, then to the University of Massachusetts where he became president of the University of Massachusetts campus in Amherst.


Kraig Adler, Professor Emeritus, Neurobiology and Behavior

Kraig Adler came to Cornell in the 1970’s to participate in the Introductory Biology Course with William Keeton. His research on snakes, salamanders and their orientation fitted in well with the departments interests in animal orientation and navigation. In addition to his teaching of Introductory Biology, Kraig served several terms as chair of the department as well as a long stint as Assistant Vice Provost for research in Day Hall. There he was intimately involved in the provost’s plan to strengthen biology at Cornell.


Hearing in a jumping spider

Jumping spiders are highly visual animals. They use vision in courtship and to catch food. Gil Menda in Ron Hoy's lab at Cornell University developed a technique to record from the brain of a jumping spider. This enabled him to study their vision but also revealed the surprising fact that some brain neurons were sensitive to both visual stimuli and to sound. It has been known for a long time that jumping spiders were sensitive to substrate vibrations, but this was distant sound. It turns out that they are very sensitive to sounds from about 80 to 130 Hz a frequency characteristic of their chief predator a wasp. When you play sounds of these frequencies to a walking spider, it freezes. Lacking any obvious ears, it is the trichobothria—long hairs on the spiders legs—which are the receptors.

Related Links

Jumping spiders can hear at a distance, new study proves (Cornell Chronicle)

Learning Strategies Center

The Learning Strategies Center (LSC) is Cornell University's central academic support unit. The LSC provides undergraduate students with supplemental courses, facilitated study groups, and walk-in tutorials for selected courses in Biology, Chemistry, Economics, Mathematics, and Physics.
The LSC also offers study skills workshops, consultations, and a course, Critical Reading and Thinking, as well as reading and statistics labs to help students develop effective strategies to excel in their rigorous Cornell coursework. Each year thousands of students use LSC services, which are free to Cornell Undergraduates.


Undergraduate research: Kaitlin Hardy uses fruit flies to study epilepsy

A group of undergraduates led by Kaitlin Hardy is using "bang sensitive" mutant fruit flies to investigate the use of drugs designed to treat human epilepsy.
When these flies are given a mechanical shock they undergo seizures that are remarkably similar to human epileptic seizures. At least one of the drugs designed to treat human epilepsy protects the flies from this effect, suggesting that these mutant fruit flies may be a useful model for exploring other treatments.
Hardy is part of the FACES (Facts, Advocacy, and Control of Epileptic Seizures) research lab.

Related Links

FACES: Facts, Advocacy, and Control of Epileptic Seizures

Undergraduate Research, Summer 2011

Many biology undergraduates do research in faculty laboratories during the summer months. Here is a sampling of some of them working on campus during the summer of 2011.


Joaquin Goyret's research shows how nocturnal hawkmoths find nectar

Night-flying hawkmoths face a problem. They feed on the nectar in flowers, and, although their vision is sufficient to find the flowers, it is not accurate enough to locate the tube leading to the nectar. So once a moth finds a flower, how does it locate the nectar?

Joaquin Goyret, a graduate student in Robert Raguso's laboratory, noticed that the grooves in the petals of flowers always pointed to the nectar. By making artificial flowers, some with grooves that led to the nectar and some with grooves that did not, he was able to demonstrate that these moths use their tongues as probes, following the grooves to the sweet reward.


Common Loons:  Introduction   Prof. Charles Walcott

Common loons are large, fish-eating birds that winter on the ocean but breed on freshwater lakes. Loons have been studied for years, but it is only in the last fifteen years that we have a large enough population of banded individuals to begin to understand the details of their behavior. Breeding territories can be founded on vacant lakes by replacing a missing pair member or by actively evicting a member of the pair. When an intruding female takes over a territory, the displaced female moves to an adjacent lake. In contrast, when the intruder is male, about 30 percent of the territorial battles are fatal. If a loon is killed, it is always the resident male, never the intruder. We don't know why there is this asymmetry in the behavior of the two sexes. But since it is the male loon that seems to select the nest site with improving reproductive success every year, this may be the reason.

Many of us know loons by their haunting vocalizations. There are three long distance calls: the wail, the tremolo, and the yodel. Each plays a role in the establishment and maintenance of the breeding territory.

Loons are at the top of the food chain and tend to accumulate toxins, like methyl mercury, in their tissues. One reason for studying loons is to see whether an increase in mercury has any effect on their reproduction or behavior. These CyberTower videos describe how this research is conducted.

This video is part 1 of 6 in the Understanding Loons series.

Common Loons: Banding   Prof. Charles Walcott

Much of what we have learned about Loon behavior was made possible by banding loons. Without bands, one loon looks very much like another. But having a banded population and especially banding the chicks, allows us to recognize individuals and, in the case of banded chicks to know their natal lake and their exact age. But banding Loons means you have to catch them. David Evers of Biodiversity developed the way to do this. One goes out at night with a very bright light. As one approaches the loon and its chicks, you make chick distress calls which tends to keep the loons from diving.  The bright spotlight allows one to get close enough to scoop the loon up in a dip net.

Once a loon is banded and weighed, it is released. Then the problem becomes seeing and recognizing the unique color combination of the bands on the Loon’s legs. Loons, unlike ducks, have their feet in the rear. This means that if the light is right, one can often see the bands through the water. If this fails, one has to wait until a loon preens, waggles its foot or scratches its head in order to see the band combination.

Common Loons: People   Prof. Charles Walcott

The Loon project was started and is still managed by Prof. Walter Piper from Chapman University in Orange California. Every Spring starting in early May and extending to mid-August there is a group of 4 to 5 students who visit our study lakes in Northern Wisconsin. Each student starts out at 4:30 am to be on their first lake by daybreak at 5. They identify all the Loons on the lake including any intruders and then spend an hour making behavioral observations every five minutes. After visiting a total of five lakes, they return to base and enter all their data into a computer. In addition to Prof Piper, Jay Mager and I are studying the Loon vocalizations.

Common Loons: Territoriality    Prof. Charles Walcott

Loons are highly territorial on their breeding lakes. In Northern Wisconsin, where we work, the majority of the lakes have a single pair of breeding Loons. Big lakes may have multiple pairs spread out in isolated coves and bays. Frequently other Loons will intrude on a territory.  When that happens the pair will rapidly join the intruder, they will swim slowly in a circle, they will dive together and then often the intruder will leave. Rarely, there will be a fight. If the intruder is a female she will fight with the resident female. The victorious female will take over the territory and the male while the loser will leave to find another vacant territory nearby.

If, however, the intruder is a male, the fight may be fatal. About 30% of male fights are fatal; and, if a Loon is killed it is always the resident male never the intruder.  We suspect that this difference between the sexes is related to the establishment of the nest. Male loons decide on the nest site and a new male Loon on a territory averages about 0.48 chicks/year. But if the nest is successful, the male will use it again next year; if it fails, he will try somewhere else. As a result, the reproductive success improves from 0.48 the first year to something like 0.8 by year three. If the female changes, the reproductive success remains the same. But if a new male takes over the territory, even with an experienced female, the reproductive success drops back to 0.48.

Common Loons: Vocalizations   Prof. Charles Walcott

There are three loud, long distance, vocalization in Loons: the wail, the tremulo and the yodel. The wail is often given when pair members are separated; playing recorded wails causes the pair to approach the loudspeaker. The tremulo is given when you are too close to a pair of Loons in your canoe and indicates some level of threat.  The Yodels is only given by male Loons and is a territorial proclamation. It is often given in response to another loon flying over a territory or in response to another male intruding on a territory.  Each male Loon has a characteristic yodel which is consistent from year to year. Surprisingly, if a loon changes its territory, it often changes its yodel. And the change is not just random; it changes its yodel to be different from that of its neighbors or previous residents on the territory. It seems to be important for a male Loon to have a distinctive yodel.

Common Loons: Conservation    Prof. Charles Walcott

While Common Loons are not endangered, they do face a multitude of threats. In our study area the lakes we work on are heavily developed with houses and summer cottages crowding along the shore. While this is a real advantage to us, in that the Loons are used to people and boats and allow us to approach quite close to them, it is a problem because Loons have trouble finding a safe place to nest.  Second, the increased fishing pressure on the lakes means that there is more lost lead fishing tackle and a single lead sinker can be fatal to a loon. Finally, there is the increased concentration of methyl mercury derived largely from power plant emissions. This mercury enters the environment and becomes concentrated as it moves up the food chain. Loons, being near the top, acquire a substantial does of mercury which leads to a variety of behavioral abnormalities.


Electric Fish:  Prof. Carl Hopkins

Some fish use electric signals to communicate and to locate prey. Join Cornell professor Carl Hopkins, an expert on these fishes from the African Nation of Gabon, as he introduces a group of freshman biology students to his research on mechanisms and uses of electric communication among fish.

Hopkins is the 2009 recipient of the prestigious CALS Edgerton Career Teaching Award and a faculty mentor in Cornell's introductory biology Exploration Program. Students in the program choose a topic of interest and participate in the research, working with lab equipment and gathering data in the labs of some of the top researchers in the country.


Communication in Electric Fish:  Kevin Gardner, Undergraduate

Cornell student Kevin Gardner explains the experiment he's conducting in the Hopkins Lab to study agonistic behavior (i.e., aggressive or defensive actions like fighting and fleeing) and sequences of pulse intervals in the 'electric' mormyrid fish Brienomyrus brachyistius.

Gardner is a biology major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.


Mosquito Courtship:  Prof. Linda Harrington, Lauren Cator, Graduate Student

Cornell entomologist Laura Harrington and her student Lauren Cator have been studying the courtship and mating of the mosquito, Aedes aegypti, which spreads dengue and yellow fever. Despite its obvious importance, remarkably little is known about mosquito behavior. It turns out that mosquito courtship is done mainly by sound; the male and female synchronize their wing beat frequencies.

The hope is that, by understanding the courtship of these mosquitoes, we may be able to control their population more effectively.

Harrington's research is supported by numerous grants including one from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.


Mosquito Flight: Prof. Itai Cohen

Cornell physicist Itai Cohen and his graduate student, Leif Ristroph, have developed a way of taking very high speed video--8000 pictures per second or about 40 frames per wing beat--of free-flying mosquitoes. In collaboration with Laura Harrington and Ronald Hoy they have analyzed how mosquitoes actually fly. This film shows the results of this high speed filming and how the pictures were made.


Mosquito Hearing: Prof Ronald Hoy

Male mosquitoes have a wing beat frequency of about 600 Hz, females 400 Hz. Yet, when they mate, they are matching tones not at this fundamental frequency but at a harmonic near 1200 Hz. The problem is that the literature reports that male mosquitoes can hear only up to a few hundred Hz and females are completely deaf! Ron Hoy and his postdoctoral associate, Ben Arthur demonstrate how they determined that both male and female mosquitoes can detect tones up to 2000 Hz.

Ronald Hoy is the David and Dorothy Merksamer Professor in Biology and the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior.


Moth Feeding:  Joaquin Goyret, Graduate Student

Night-flying hawkmoths face a problem. They feed on the nectar in flowers, and, although their vision is sufficient to find the flowers, it is not accurate enough to locate the tube leading to the nectar. So once a moth finds a flower, how does it locate the nectar?

Joaquin Goyret, a graduate student in Robert Raguso's laboratory, noticed that the grooves in the petals of flowers always pointed to the nectar. By making artificial flowers, some with grooves that led to the nectar and some with grooves that did not, he was able to demonstrate that these moths use their tongues as probes, following the grooves to the sweet reward.


Maple Syrup Production:  Prof. Brian Chabot

Join Brian Chabot, professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, on a visit to the Arnot Research Forest to learn about making maple syrup.

In the early history of this country, Native Americans made it by putting hot rocks into maple sap collected in hollowed-out logs.

Later, iron pots brought by the colonists made it easier to boil the sap and dramatically increased the speed and efficiency of the syrup-making process.

In recent years, large-scale maple-syrup production advanced even further.


Spinal Cord Regeneration in Zebra Fish: Prof. Joe Fetcho

Zebra fish are unique because their larvae are transparent and their nervous system can be observed through their skin.

Cornell neurobiologist Joe Fetcho uses zebra fish as a model organism for developing a basic set of principles on the organization and function of neurons, and for studying cell regeneration. He has developed a robust strategy for inducing cell growth and restoration of function, both necessary for curing spinal cord injury.

In September 2009, Fetcho received the NIH Director's Pioneer Award, which supports scientists of exceptional creativity who propose pioneering approaches who propose pioneering approaches to major challenges in biomedical and behavioral research.


Milkweed and its insects:  Prof. Anurag Agrawal

Milkweed is a challenging plant to eat. It is covered with hairs, contains a sticky, gummy latex, and is highly toxic. Yet there are a variety of insects that are specialists on feeding on milkweed. The caterpillar of the monarch butterfly is the most famous.

Anurag Agrawal shares his research on the relationship between milkweed and the insects that rely on it.

Agrawal is an associate professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Department of Entomology. He is also the director of the Cornell Chemical Ecology Group and an associate director of the Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future.


The Cornell Arts Quad: Accident or Design?  Prof. Vince Mulcahy

Cornell professor of architecture Vince Mulcahy describes the history of Cornell's Arts Quad--from the first "Stone Row" building to the Johnson Museum.


Caterpillar Feeding: A Matter of Taste   Marta del Campo, Post Doctoral Associate

Marta del Campo explains how the larvae of Manduca sexta, a moth nicknamed the tobacco hornworm, can become so chemically dependent on their favorite foods--the leaves of eggplant, potato, or tomato plants--that they would rather starve to death than eat leaves from other plants.

Tobacco hornworms raised on an artificial diet will eat any kind of plant material. Yet after only four or five days of feeding on a solanaceous plant such as tobacco, tomato, or hot pepper, they will refuse any other kind of plant food. Having become host specific, they will use taste organs located on hairs near their mouths to search out particular chemicals. In the absence of these chemicals, the caterpillars will not feed. If these hairs are removed, the caterpillars will once again return to feeding on any plant.


Social Wasps: Conflict and Cooperation:  Prof. H. Kern Reeve

In honey bee colonies, only the queen can lay eggs. This means that the reproductive interest of the workers lies solely in supporting the queen. In paper wasps, by contrast, the workers themselves can reproduce, raising the possibility of conflict between the interests of the workers and that of the queen.

Kern Reeve, professor of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell, and his graduate student Jessie Barker have been exploring the balance between conflict and cooperation in these wasp societies.


Toad Breeding:  Prof. Charles Walcott

Charles Walcott, former dean of the university faculty and professor emeritus of neurobiology and behavior, visits a local pond where toads congregate to mate and lay eggs.

It's a raucous scene--male toads trill to attract females, and those lucky enough to do so are besieged by competing males. Nonetheless, eggs are laid and fertilized resulting in clouds of tiny black tadpoles. In due course these give rise to tiny toads that will grow up in field and forest, and return a year or two later to continue the cycle.


Egg Development in the Mouse:  Prof. Scott Coonrod

When reproductive biologists first looked at mouse eggs with the electron microscope, they saw a structure in the cytoplasm that they named "cytoplasmic lattices." In Scott Coonrod's laboratory at the Baker Institute, it was discovered that the lattices are formed with PAD6, one of the predominant proteins in the eggs.

PAD6 does not appear to play a role in the development of the egg itself. Therefore, mice unable to synthesize this protein may still carry normally developed eggs. However, if those eggs are fertilized, they do not develop beyond the two-cell stage. This is particularly interesting because the development of the mouse egg is under the control of the mother mouse's genome, but after fertilization, at the two-cell stage, the control shifts to the nucleus of the fertilized egg. The absence of PAD6 appears to disrupt this transition from maternal to embryonic control.

Because humans have this same protein in their eggs, it is hypothesized that PAD6 may play a role in human sterility.


Bed Bugs 101:  Prof. Don Rutz

From hotels and college dorms to Manhattan offices, bed bugs are turning up everywhere this year.

Cornell entomology professor Don Rutz and former student Allison Taisey describe the tell-tale signs of bed bug infestation, where to look, and what to do if you've got them.


Naked Mole-Rats of Africa:   Prof. Paul Sherman

Naked mole-rats are native to Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia. They live in extensive underground tunnel systems and subsist on large tubers which they find by burrowing. Though a colony consists of up to several hundred individuals, only one female and a few males reproduce--the rest of the animals support the colony. As Cornell professor Paul Sherman explains, this is remarkably similar to the societies of the social insects like bees and wasps.

Sherman's research focuses on the fragile balance between cooperation and conflict in various mammalian and avian societies.


Olfactory Memory and Estrogen in Mice:  Laura Fox, Undergraduate

Mice are very sensitive to foreign odors and female mice more so than males. Could it be the estrogen level, typically higher in females than males, that causes this increased odor memory?

Laura Fox, an undergraduate working in Christianne Linster's Laboratory aims to find out by manipulating the estrogen levels in mice and then testing their olfactory memory.


Making Cornell Cider

During apple season, which normally runs from late August to mid-April, Cornell makes about 2,000 gallons of cider a week. Fruit is picked from Cornell Orchards where it is sold fresh in the store or pressed into cider. The raw cider is pasteurized and bottled by Cornell Dairy in Stocking Hall.

Cornell Orchards is a working orchard, vineyard and fruit farm managed by the Department of Horticulture.


Cornell Raptor Program:  Prof. John Parks

At the Bondareff Raptor Facility, the Cornell Raptor Program, led by professor John Parks and staffed by student volunteers, rehabilitates sick or injured raptors, and maintains a large collection of birds for both captive breeding and public demonstrations.

The program was established in 1993 to provide students of the animal and biological sciences, natural resources, and veterinary medicine, and other community members an opportunity to become involved directly with efforts to promote conservation of raptors.


How Hearing Happens:  Prof. James Hudspeth, The Rockefeller University

James Hudspeth, F.M. Kirby Professor and head of the Laboratory of Sensory Neuroscience at Rockefeller University, spoke at Cornell on March 31 as part of the Spring 2010 University Lecture Series. He describes the basic process of hearing at a level that can be easily grasped by the layman. This is a full 60 minute lecture.

University Lectures were established by Cornell historian Goldwin Smith in the beginning of the 20th century, as a means of bringing the world to Cornell.


Johannes Lehmann finds key to new energy, soil fertility in biochar:  Prof. Johannes Lehmann

Scientists have learned that biochar -- a charcoal-like substance -- is the ancient key to the dark, fertile soils of the Amazon. Today biochar is being explored both as a soil amendment and as a way of sequestering carbon in soil.

As Cornell soil scientist Johannes Lehmann shows us, one can make biochar out of almost any organic waste material, and retrieve valuable gasses and liquids which can be used for fuel. The remaining biochar can be added to infertile soil with dramatic effects.


Deep Water Whale Communication:  Christopher Clark, Senior Scientist

Using the Navy's underwater submarine listening system, Christopher Clark has been able to track deep water whales, like the blue whale and fin whale, throughout the ocean basins.

These animals use sound to communicate over very long distances; for example, a whale singing off the Grand Banks of Canada can be detected in Puerto Rico! But as the number and noise of commercial ships has increased, it is likely to interfere with the whale's ability to hear one another. What the long term effect of this will be on the whales is largely unknown.


Coastal Whale Communication:  Christopher Clark, Senior Scientist

Whales living in coastal areas, like right whales and humpbacks, communicate using sound. But unlike deep water whales, these coastal whales have quieter vocalizations that travel tens rather than hundreds or thousands of miles.

Chris Clark has placed hydrophones in Cape Cod Bay to locate vocalizing whales and track their movements.

As a result of these studies, ships have begun to slow down as they approach areas with whales, greatly reducing the amount of noise they make.


A Summary of Loon Biology;  Prof. Charles Walcott

Common loons defend breeding territories on fresh water lakes in the northern US and Canada. While a great deal is known in general about their breeding biology it was the advent of banding that enabled identification of individual loons.

Cornell professor of neurobiology and behavior Charles Walcott and colleagues Walter Piper and Jay Mager have been studying a banded population of loons near Rhinelander, WI for the past 18 years. They have found that loons are quite faithful to the lakes on which they breed returning for an average of 5 years. Loons looking for a breeding site will either pick a vacant lake, replace a missing breeder or actively displace a pair member.

Female fights are relatively benign with the winner taking over the territory and the resident male, the loser moving to another lake in the vicinity. For males, fights are more serious; in 30% of such fights a male is killed. And if a male is killed it is always the resident, never the intruder.


Honeybee Decision Making:  Prof. Thomas Seeley

When a honeybee colony becomes overcrowded, a swarm of thousands departs with the old queen to form a new colony.

Cornell professor, biologist and beekeeper Thomas Seeley explains how honeybees use swarm intelligence to make the critical decision of which new nest site to pick.

Seeley's book, "Honeybee Democracy" was published in 2010 by Princeton University Press.


Epilepsy in Fruit Flies:  Kaitlin Hardy, Undergraduate

A group of undergraduates led by Kaitlin Hardy is using "bang sensitive" mutant fruit flies to investigate the use of drugs designed to treat human epilepsy.

When these flies are given a mechanical shock they undergo seizures that are remarkably similar to human epileptic seizures. At least one of the drugs designed to treat human epilepsy protects the flies from this effect, suggesting that these mutant fruit flies may be a useful model for exploring other treatments.

Hardy is part of the FACES (Facts, Advocacy, and Control of Epileptic Seizures) research lab.


Listening to Elephants:  Katy Payne,  Laboratory of Ornithology

Elephants in the wild seem to coordinate their movements even when widely separated. Male elephants seem to be able to find females in estrous even over long distances.

Bioacoustics researcher Katy Payne and her colleagues have found that elephants use low frequency sounds to communicate. These sounds are mostly below the range of human hearing but we feel them as "pulsations" in the air. In Africa these sounds may travel as far as 10 km and serve to coordinate elephant herds.

Payne is co-founder of the Elephant Listening Project, which uses acoustic methods to study and aid in the conservation of forest elephants in Central Africa.


Elephant Listening Project:  Peter Wrege,  Sr. Research Associate

In the dense forests of Africa, there is a species of forest elephant that has proved very difficult to study. Indeed, even simple questions like how many elephants there are and where they are located have been impossible to answer.

Katy Payne's discovery of low frequency communication systems in elephants has provided a new way to study elephant behavior. Automatic recording units make it possible to monitor the elephants' communication signals and researchers use this information to begin to understand something of the forest elephant's biology.

Peter Wrege, director of the Elephant Listening Project, describes the techniques and what has been learned about the biology of these wild, elusive animals.


Learning Strategies Center: Elise West, Director

The Learning Strategies Center (LSC) is Cornell University's central academic support unit. The LSC provides undergraduate students with supplemental courses, facilitated study groups, and walk-in tutorials for selected courses in Biology, Chemistry, Economics, Mathematics, and Physics.

The LSC also offers study skills workshops, consultations, and a course, Critical Reading and Thinking, as well as reading and statistics labs to help students develop effective strategies to excel in their rigorous Cornell coursework. Each year thousands of students use LSC services, which are free to Cornell Undergraduates.


Iron Chef, Physics:  Prof. Itai Cohen

Following Commencement on May 29, 2011, graduates of the Physics department, led by Prof. Itai Cohen, put on a series of physics demonstrations, "Iron Chef" style.

Carbon Cycle 2 (Bethe Lecture)  Prof. Paul Alivsatos

Paul Alivisatos, Cornell's fall 2011 Bethe lecturer, explained the science behind the evidence that human activity is causing global warming, September 28, 2011. Alivisatos is director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

The Bethe Lectures honor Hans A. Bethe, Cornell professor of physics from 1936 until his death in 2005. Bethe won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1967 for his description of nuclear processes that power the sun.


Undergraduate Research In Biology

Many biology undergraduates do research in faculty laboratories during the summer months. Here is a sampling of some of them working on campus during the summer of 2011.


Lost Ladybug Project:  Prof. John Losey

The New York State insect is the 9 spotted Ladybug. Ladybugs, both as larvae and adults, make their living eating aphids. Some years ago another species of Ladybug was introduced into the United States and seems to have replaced the 9 spotted species throughout much of its range.

The Lost Ladybug project seeks to determine the different species of ladybugs and where they occur in North America. Many folk have contributed photographs and quite recently one of those photographs from Long Island showed the 9 Spotted Ladybug. It turns out that there is a thriving colony of the 9 Spotted Ladybugs on an organic farm on Long Island.

Professor John Losey and his group are now looking at interactions between the 9 spotted species and the import to see why one replaced the other.

Charles Walcott                       9 July 2012


  • Mager, John N, III and Charles Walcott  2014  Dynamics of Aggressive Vocalizations in the Common Loon (Gavia immer): A Review.  Waterbirds 37: 37-46.
  • Piper, Walter H, Mager, John N.,Walcott, Charles, Furey, Lyla, Banfield, Nathan, Reinke, Andrew, Spilker, Frank, and Joel A. Flory. 2015 Territory settlement in common loons: no footholds but age and assessment are important.  Animal Behaviour 104: 155-163.
  • Mager, John N., Walcott, Charles and Walter H. Piper. 2012 Male common loons signal greater aggressive motivation by lengthening territorial yodels. Wilson Journal of Ornithology 124 (1) 74-81.
  • Piper, W. H., Walcott, C and Mager, J. (2011). Marking Loons, Making Progress. American Scientist 99:220-227.
  • Mager, J.N., Walcott, C. and W. H. Piper (2010). Common Loons can differentiate yodels of neighboring and non-neighboring conspecifics. J. Field Ornithol. 81 (4):392-401.
  • Piper, W.H., Walcott, C., Mager, J.H. Spilker, F.J. (2008). Fatal battles in common loons: a preliminary analysis. Animal Behavior 75: 1109-1115.
  • Mager, J.H., Walcott, C. Piper, W.H. (2007). Nest platforms increase aggressive behavior in common loons. Naturwissenschaften. 95: 141-147.
  • Piper, W.H, Walcott, C., Mager, J.H., Spilker, FJ.(2007). Nestsite selection by male loons leads to sex-biased site familiarity. J. Animal Ecology 77: 205-210.
  • Mager, J. N., III, Walcott, C., Piper, W. (2007). Male common loons, Gavia immer, communicate body mass and condition through dominant frequencies of territorial yodels.  Animal Behaviour 73:683-690.
  • Mager, J. N., Walcott, C., and Evers, D.  (2007).  Macrogeographic variation in body size and territorial vocalizations of male Common Loons (Gavia immer).  Waterbirds 30 (1): 64-72.
  • Walcott, C. Mager, J and W. Piper (2006). Changing Territories, Changing Tunes: male loons, Gavia immer,   change their vocalizations when they change territories.  Animal Behaviour 71: 673-683.
  • Piper, W. H., Walcott, C., Mager, J. H., Perala M., Tischler K. B., Harrington E., Turcotte A. J., Schwabenlander M. and N. Banfield (2006).  Prospecting in a solitary breeder: chick production elicits territorial intrusions in common loons.  Behavioral Ecology 17: 881-888.
  • Walcott, C. (2005).  Multi-modal orientation in homing pigeons. Integr. Comp. Biol., 45:574-581.
  • Walcott, C. and David Evers (2000). Loon Vocal Tagging: An Evaluation of its Feasibility Using a Banded Population of Loons. In McIntyre, J.W. and D.C. Evers (eds.). 2000 Loons: Old history and new findings. Proceedings of a Symposium from the 1997 meeting, American Ornithologists' Union. North American Loon Fund, Holderness, N.H.
  • Walcott, C. (2000). Loony Tunes, Seney National Wildlife Refuge Newsletter.
  • Walcott, C., Evers, D, Froehler, M. and A. Krakauer (1999). Individuality in "Yodel" calls recorded from a banded population of Common Loons, Gavia immer. Bioacoustics 10: 101-114.
  • Walcott, C. (1996). Pigeon homing: Observations, experiments and confusions. J. exp. Biol. 199:21-27.
  • Walcott, C. (1992). Pigeons at magnetic anomalies: the effects of loft location. J. exp. Biol. 170:127-141.
  • Walcott, C. (1989). The disorientation of pigeons at Jersey Hill. In Proceedings of The Royal Institute of Navigation, RIN 89, Cardiff (with A.I. Brown).
  • Walcott, C. (1989). Show me the way you go home. Nat. Hist. Mag., pp. 40-46, Nov.

In the news