Biological Sciences

(209) 664-6547

California State University, Stanislaus

Office: N-272

One University Circle

Office Hours: W 10-11:30, F 3:30-5

Turlock, CA 95382



Spring 2009

Introduction to Zoology (ZOOL 1050) and Lab


Courses I teach at CSU Stanislaus include:

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Main Focus

My research focuses on the ecology, behavior, and behavioral ecology of terrestrial animals. The majority of my work has been on reptiles, and my dissertation examined the ecology of the zebra-tailed lizard (Callisaurus draconoides) in the Mojave and Colorado deserts of Joshua Tree National Park, in Southern California. Specifically, I examined the diets of the lizards, and found that they consume a very wide variety of arthropod and plant taxa and also a great range of prey sizes. I also collected data on home ranges of all the individual lizards in my study and found that males and females share space differently, with males overlapping more females and with fewer males than females do. The topography of the study site also appears to play a role in how much overlap is observed between individual home ranges.

Recent Work

Coast Horned Lizards (Phrynosoma coronatum)
In Spring 2008, I initiated a project to establish baseline population data and to prepare for long-term monitoring of the Coast Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma coronatum) in the federally managed Arena Plains Unit of the Merced Wildlife Area. These lizards are in decline throughout their range, and there is little museum data to record the previous extent of the Coast Horned Lizard in the Central Valley. As the Arena Plains Unit is a closed refuge, this represents an important extant locality for these animals. Several CSU Stanislaus undergraduates are assisting with this work. We are surveying for Coast Horned Lizards every three weeks to collect information about population size and activity periods.

Sand Lizards
In Summer 2007 and 2008, I traveled to sites near Pyramid Lake, NV and Needles, CA to continue my studies on another aspect of zebra-tailed lizard ecology, namely, a peculiar anti-predator behavior they exhibit. These lizards are named for the black and white striping of the ventral side of the tail, and they have a very exciting display in which they curl the tail up over the back and wag it from side to side. It has been hypothesized that this is a pursuit-deterrent signal to potential predators that the speedy lizard is aware of the predator's present and is ready to make a quick escape. I have been researching the ubiquity of this signal and its relationship to predator presence (visual predators, like bigger lizards and predatory birds) and tail-loss frequency in different populations of these lizards. In 2008, I was accompanied by three of our CSU Stanislaus undergraduates. Desert field work is particularly challenging physically, but I think we all agree that the opportunity to observe these complex and fascinating animals in their natural context is worth the discomfort.

I am currently studying the evolutionary context of the zebra-tailed lizard's (Callisaurus draconoides) antipredator traits, but examining the morphological characteristics of its relatives in the sand lizard clade. My research students and I have been collecting data from museum specimens in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at UC Berkeley to explore the variation in the frequency of caudal autotomy in populations of lizards in the sand lizards clade. Given that zebra-tailed lizards have very conspicuous tails, some populations have a surprisingly low frequency of tail loss. I have examined the complete collection of C. draconoides in the MVZ and my students and I have been adding data for the earless lizards (Cophosaurus texanus, Holbrookia maculata, and Holbrookia propinqua) and the fringe-toed lizards (Uma spp.). These other members of the "sand lizards" group from Southwestern North America share the zebra-tailed lizard's banded tail, but most lack the wagging display.

Graduate Students

I am excited to be involved with the Master's program in Ecology and Sustainability. I am serving as an advisor or committee member for several current students and hope to increase my involvement in the future. I am especially interested in serving as an advisor for students with an interest in ectotherms, and would love to see some Master's level herpetological projects at my new field site on the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge.

Other Interests

In Summer 2003, I collaborated with Jill DeVito, Jesse Meik, and Dan Formanowicz at the E. N. Huyck Preserve in New York, examining the thermal and desiccation tolerance of three species of sympatric riparian wolf spiders. The three spiders are found at different distances from the stream, and these correspond to the difference in desiccation tolerance between the spiders.

I am also interested in tropical biology, and I have traveled in Costa Rica, Belize, Honduras, Brazil, Argentina and Guyana.

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There are many ways to distinguish yourself in preparation for a successful career. Most of these allow you to further explore your career options (to make sure you really know what you are getting in to!) while at the same time improving your suitability as a candidate for positions in the workforce or for further schooling. I'll add examples and ideas as time permits.

Professional Societies

Becoming a member of a professional organization is a great way to prepare for your future. Membership in a professional society shows your commitment to and interest in your field, and it can set you apart from the competition. Membership also results in your awareness of conferences and career opportunities in your area and can help you to make valuable contacts. If you choose a membership that includes journal issues, you'll also end up being better read in your field. I've included a broad sampling of professional societies, and there are a lot of others out there. (Note: membership fees subject to change - current as of 12/07)

Internships and Volunteer Positions

Getting experience on the job is a great way to distinguish yourself, make valuable contacts, and add to your letters-of-recommendation. You can actually sign up for credit hours (2 units for 60 hours of work) through the Department of Biological Sciences (BIOL 4940) to do either a paid or volunteer internship (you find a community partner to work with). If you are unable to make such a large commitment, then volunteering for a business or organization in your area of interest on a less rigorous schedule can also be an important way to learn about career opportunities and to show your interest in the field. For example, volunteering a few hours a week at an animal shelter or for a veterinarian will give you a better idea of what is involved in the day-to-day details of these services. Remember, if you commit to an internship or volunteer position, it is critical that you be reliable, cooperative, and friendly-mannered, or you will only hurt your future options.

Research Assistantships and Individual Study

As you know, CSU Stanislaus is a teaching-focused university. What you may not realize is that many of your faculty are actively involved in research projects. If you take a course of particular interest to you, you might ask your professor if she/he has any openings for research assistants. If your professor doesn't have a current project you can assist in, you might be able to do your own small project as an Individual Study course. Ask your professor if she/he has any suitable ideas for a 2-3 semester project.

Applying to Academic Graduate School?

Assuming that you have found a program well-suited to your interests and that you exceed the minimum requirements for admission, the most important thing to do to get admitted to your first choice school is to make personal contact with a faculty member who is accepting graduate students. Consider this from the faculty perspective: the committee has a stack of 30 applicants and intends to admit ten new graduate students to the program. At least twenty of the students exceed the minimum qualifications. Ten of these students have personally contacted individual faculty to inquire about research opportunities in their labs. Some of these have even visited campus, met other graduate students in the program and made their interest in the program abundantly evident. Who do you think the committee will admit to the program: the unknowns who look fine on paper, or the applicants who have such an interest level that they've taken time to make themselves known on campus?

Recommended Reading to Enhance Your Understanding

These books all are written for a general audience and are both entertaining and educational to read. If the book is owned by our library, I have noted this, and I also added links to I'll add more suggestions as I run across them.

Places to Search for Science and Biology Jobs

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Upcoming Events!

Pages for Fun and for Information


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Copyright: Marina M. Gerson - November 2005
Page updated: 16 February 2009