Zachariah Smart ’19


Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Project Title

Effects of El Niño Rainfall Patterns on the Population Dynamics of a Tropical Forest Bird

Presentation Link

View Zachariah's Presentation

This was my second summer as a field assistant for a long-term study of the breeding biology of the greater ani, a Neotropical cuckoo. Pairs of greater anis cooperatively build a nest, lay eggs and raise their young, which makes them ideal for answering questions about the evolution of cooperation. My research — which will likely become my senior-thesis project — focused on how climate variables and regimes such as El Niño affect the anis’ reproductive success. I piloted a boat every day to find and observe nests on Barro Colorado Island. We took DNA samples from eggs and nestlings to establish their parentage and sibling relationships, then we observed their behavior and monitored the survival rates of eggs and nestlings. We also placed nest-monitoring cameras to capture predation. It was amazing to return to the project with an ability to ask deeper questions. Christie is an approachable and knowledgable mentor. I learned a ton from her, from lab manager Meghan Strong, and the other lab members. It was mindblowing to be immersed in the Panamanian tropical lowland forest for another two months. Thank you, PEI!

* This internship is connected to the PEI Water and the Environment Grand Challenges project, “Effects of El Niño Rainfall Patterns on the Population Dynamics of a Tropical Forest Bird.”

Internship Year


Project Category

Biodiversity and Conservation


Princeton University and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Barro Colorado Island, Panama


Christina Riehl, Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology