Ecology and Evolutionary Biology graduate students John David Curlis and Teresa Pegan are the recipients of the 2023 Donald W. Tinkle Scholarship from the University of Michigan’s Museum of Zoology. UMMZ’s most notable student award is a special recognition of research excellence. EEB is excited to announce two winners for the 2023 Tinkle Award. 

John David Curlis’ research for his doctoral degree involves studying anoles, a species of lizard found in Panama. Specifically, he is interested in understanding why lizards have such a vast array of colors and patterns on their dewlaps, a throat flap, which they use to communicate with potential mates, rivals and predators. 

“This dewlap is a hallmark of the more than 400 species in the genus Anolis, and while we know a lot about what dewlaps do and are used for, what’s less clear is why they are so ridiculously variable in color and pattern. Just about every color found in nature - from yellow to blue to orange to black - can be seen on the dewlap of some anole species,” said Curlis. “And moreover, some anoles, like the one that I focus on in Panama, can have drastically different looking dewlaps within the same species. So, if they’re all using dewlaps for the same thing, why would they evolve to have so much variation?”

To test his hypothesis that the light environment plays a role in dewlap color variation, Curlis is studying lizards on tiny islands in the Panama Canal. By coming back every year to see which males with certain dewlap characteristics have greater or fewer offspring than their rivals, he hopes to highlight the factors that lead to variability in colorful traits that are important for signaling. 

Curlis revealed that his interest in evolutionary biology began as a child when he became fascinated with reptiles and amphibians. This childhood obsession eventually led him to ask fundamental questions about how and why we see so much variation among animals.

‘Why do things look the way they do? Why are some animals super colorful, and why are some so camouflaged that you could easily step on them before noticing them?” And while these may seem like straightforward questions that even a childhood version of myself could come up with, they’re actually part of one of the most fundamental questions in evolutionary biology: How do we explain the patterns of phenotypic diversity found in nature? I was drawn to evolutionary biology because I want to answer this question,” said Curlis. 

Curlis also is involved with teaching undergraduate biology students about the diversity of organisms found in research collections, a task he finds incredibly rewarding. He says he hopes to inspire these young biologists to pursue careers in the natural sciences and to show them that there are many paths to a career in biology. 

“I love teaching undergraduates because many of them have never seen or even heard of some of the amazing organisms we have in our research collections, and being the person who introduces them to this diversity is an absolute honor,” said Curlis. “It’s also extremely rewarding to be able to talk to the younger biologists who are familiar with this diversity because who doesn’t want to nerd out about animals at all times?”

After completing his dissertation, Curlis plans to continue pursuing his passion for wildlife and biodiversity as a postdoctoral researcher or nature guide. Overall, Curlis’ dedication to evolutionary biology and his passion for sharing his knowledge with others make him a deserving winner of the Tinkle Award.

Teresa Pegan has always been drawn to the natural world and the diversity of species that exist within it. That fascination led her to pursue a career in evolutionary biology, where she could explore the ways in which different species evolve and adapt over time. 

Pegan’s focus for her doctoral research is on the genetic patterns of migratory birds in the North American boreal forest. This recognition was a welcome validation of her accomplishments. 

“In graduate school, and science in general, we spend a lot of time working on grant applications and papers for publication, and sometimes there can be more negative than positive feedback during these kinds of processes (though negative feedback that is constructive is very valuable, of course!) Having my work recognized by an award is a great form of positive feedback,” said Pegan. 

For Pegan, the appeal of evolutionary biology lies in its ability to explain the incredible variety of life that exists on our planet. She is particularly interested in understanding how animals that move around a lot, like migratory birds, evolve and adapt over time. 

“For me, the hook to evolutionary biology is biodiversity. I like to spend time in nature and observe lots of species that live in the same place but that look and act totally different from each other. As an example related to my research, the birds that live in Michigan during the summer include some species that will be here all year round, some that go a few states south for the winter, and some that go all the way to South America,” said Pegan. “What determines which birds have which strategies? You can ask similar questions about any species or traits. Species have so many different ways of living, and evolutionary biology provides a framework to understand how these differences arose and how they impact other aspects of species’ lives.”

In addition to her academic achievements, she has also won the Photographer at Large contest twice for her nature photography (2021 & 2023). She sees these activities as a way to combine her love of research with her enjoyment of being outdoors and observing different species in their natural habitats. 

“I am interested in whether seasonal migration behavior influences genetic connectivity across this continent-wide forest region. Are long-distance migratory birds more likely to show a lot of genetic mixing because they move around so much? On the other hand, migratory birds show strong “site fidelity” – they often have the same nesting territory and migratory route year after year,” said Pegan. “This behavior could prevent genetic mixing and allow different populations across the boreal region to diverge evolutionarily.”

Looking ahead, Pegan plans to continue her research on the evolutionary genetics of migratory birds by pursuing postdoctoral research. She is excited to see where her work will take her and hopes to contribute to the growing body of knowledge about the natural world and its many wonders.

“Part of my motivation relates to the fact that I like to combine research and fun (for better or worse). I enjoy being outside in nature, looking for different species of plants and animals, and taking pictures that capture interesting species and habitats,” said Pegan. “Nature and photography activities that I do for fun (including taking pictures that I submit to the PAL contest) don’t contribute to my research work in a concrete way, but observations I make in nature are an inspiration for my research ideas.”

The Tinkle Scholarship is awarded in Professor Tinkle’s memory, considering nominees in light of Tinkle’s life and special qualities as an evolutionary biologist. He was an inspiration to his contemporaries.

Tinkle joined the University of Michigan in 1965 as professor and curator of reptiles and amphibians. At U-M he taught Comparative Anatomy, and two new courses that he designed with colleagues: Evolutionary Biology of the Vertebrates and Evolutionary Ecology. He became director of the Museum of Zoology in 1975 and served until his death in 1980.

He received many honors during his scientific career. He was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Herpetologist’s League. He received a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in 1979, and in 1980 was awarded the Eminent Ecologist Award of the Ecological Society of America.