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Bowdoin Professor Nat Wheelwright

Nat Wheelwright, Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Natural Sciences

Nat Wheelwright, Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Natural Sciences

Nathaniel Wheelwright joined the Bowdoin faculty in 1986. Wheelwright had a connection to Bowdoin before arriving, as research he had done on the Fork-Tailed Storm Petrel cited Chuck Huntington’s studies on Kent Island. Wheelwright served as the director of the Bowdoin Scientific Station on Kent Island from 1987-2004; his research on the island focused on the Savannah Sparrows. This long-term project continues to this day, and he is currently working with a French geneticist to attempt to find a genetic basis for divorce and polygamy in the birds.

“I’m guessing it’s mainly an environmentally determined trait,” said Wheelwright.

The work with divorce and polygamy is part of a larger project based on multiple measurable traits in birds, such as their wing span, breeding patterns, nesting sites, and more.

“We’re looking at which traits have a strong genetic basis, and which are environmentally determined traits,” he explained.

Wheelwright was interested in birds from an early age. He grew up on a rural farm in Massachusetts, and said that he spent his childhood lying outside and listening to bird songs.

“When they hit puberty, my grandfather gave each of his grandsons before me a shotgun,” said Wheelwright, “but he gave me a pair of binoculars instead.”

His other past research includes a study of seed dispersal by fruit eating birds in Costa Rica, which led to other long-term studies and further research. Wheelwright also has a paper coming out this month on the cultural evolution of bird song in the journal Animal Behavior. He compares bird song to human slang, saying that the different variations spread through bird populations in much the same way words like “groovy” become integrated into human vocabulary.