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Sandra L. Vehrencamp

2011 recipient of the William Brewster Memorial Award

Sandra L. Vehrencamp

The 2011 William Brewster Memorial Award is presented to Sandra L. Verhencamp, Emeritus Faculty in the Laboratory of Ornithology and Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. Dr. Verhencamp earned a B.A. from the University of California – Berkeley and a Ph.D. in Animal Behavior at Cornell University where she was a student of Dr. Stephen T. Emlen. Her dissertation was on the evolution of communal nesting in groove-billed anis.

Dr. Vehrencamp is a behavioral ecologist who studies social evolution in birds. Her research integrates the evolution of social behavior, life history evolution, signal evolution, sexual selection, and parental care. Within the broad category of social evolution, Dr. Vehrencamp has made important contributions to several different areas of ornithology: the evolution of cooperative breeding, including general theoretical work; the reproductive ecology of Crotophagine cuckoos with a focus on the evolution of joint nesting; the evolutionary significance of sexual displays; and evolutionary aspects of avian song. She has published over 65 papers, which have been cited more than 2400 times, and has authored 19 book chapters.

Principals of Animal Communication is a respected and very influential textbook co-authored with Jack Bradbury and published in 1998.  The book is considered the reference for the evolutionary and proximate aspects of animal signals and communication. It is a tour de force used both as an upper division textbook as well as a high level reference book for researchers in the field, including ornithologists. That the text has been cited over 1100 times attests to its value to the field.

Dr. Verhencamp’s early work on the reproductive ecology of grove-billed anis focused on the evolution of joint nesting (also known as communal nesting), a form of cooperative breeding. At the time, much of the field of cooperative breeding was dominated by studies of helpers at the nest (i.e. non-breeding individuals). Her ani work helped to broaden the sorts of behaviors included in studies of cooperative breeding to include social groups with multiple breeding individuals. Equally important, Dr. Verhencamp’s work on reproductive competition within social breeding groups of anis played a critical role in forcing evolutionary biologists to pay more attention to the conflicts of interest that are often rife in putatively cooperative social groups of animals. Her two most important papers on the ani work were published in Science and Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology respectively.

Dr. Vehrencamp’s work on anis, and the reproductive antics that female anis use to alter their share of the reproductive pie, led to two ground-breaking theoretical papers on reproductive skew. These papers laid out a broadly synthetic theory for the evolution of cooperative breeding that combined two ideas that had previously been viewed as alternative hypotheses—indirect kin selection benefits to helpers and ecological constraints that favored delayed dispersal.  Her synthesis highlighted the interesting pattern that the degree of reproductive skew varies tremendously in avian societies and provided a novel hypothesis to explain the variation. These ideas helped transform our thinking about the evolution of cooperative breeding in birds, and the ideas have also been extremely influential in studies of cooperative societies in other taxa as well (e.g. insects, mammals).

With Jack Bradbury and Robert Gibson, Verhencamp conducted a long-term study of sexual selection and mating system in sage grouse following earlier work on mating system evolution in bats. Two papers were particularly influential. One study focused on the energetics of male sage ground display and was one the first to test honest signaling theory using an energetics approach. A second study focused on understanding the factors that affect female mating decisions in lekking systems, like grouse, where a few males garner most of the copulations and females seem to show unanimity in the males they prefer.

The AOU honors Dr. Sandra Vehrencamp for her thorough and insightful body of work on social evolution and animal communication. She has served as an inspiration to all her colleagues through her commitment to excellence, exceptional dedication to ornithology, professionalism, and work ethic. We are proud to recognize a research scientist, teacher, and mentor who continues to increase our knowledge of the evolution of social behavior and communication in birds.

Award criteria. - The William Brewster Memorial Award consists of a medal and an honorarium provided through the endowed William Brewster Memorial Fund of the American Ornithologists’ Union. It is given annually to the author or coauthors (not previously so honored) of the most meritorious body of work on birds of the Western Hemisphere published during the 10 calendar years preceding a given AOU meeting.