Biology assistant professor receives Maxwell/Hanrahan Foundation 2021 Field Biology Award


Dr. Karl Berg, assistant professor of biology in the UTRGV College of Sciences, is one of five researchers awarded the international 2021 Maxwell/Hanrahan Foundation Field of Biology Award, for his innovative green-rumped parrotlet vocalization research. (Photo by Soraya Delgado)
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Texas Border Business

By Amanda L. Alaniz 

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, Texas – Dr. Karl Berg, assistant professor of biology in the UTRGV College of Sciences, has been awarded international recognition for his innovative parrot vocalization research. 

Berg is one of five recipients of the Maxwell/Hanrahan Foundation 2021 Field Biology Award, for his study of how birds communicate.  

“Berg’s creative studies have uncovered new insights about how parrots communicate, which may shed light on evolution of bird song, as well as human speech,” the website says of his research. 

Berg said he is excited to be recognized, and humbled to be in the company of the other 2021 recipients.  “I want to express my sincerest gratitude to the Maxwell/Hanrahan Foundation for the 2021 Award in Field Biology. I’m honored to stand alongside four other awardees as we learn, bring diverse perspectives to field biology and share it with the world,” he said.

Berg took over the long-term green-rumped parrotlet study initiated by Steven Beissinger in the Llanos of Venezuela. The award recognizes that study, defined as an international collaboration and “long-term ecological monitoring project now in its 34th consecutive year,” he said. 

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Berg’s study posed and considered creative questions, such as how each nestling within each nest developed its own unique “signature” call. His finding was that the next environment (learning component) was more important than the genes inherited from parents in the development of each individual’s vocal signature.

Berg utilizes video filming inside the nests in Venezuela to record nestlings as they go through the process of developing language. By remotely monitoring countless hours of audio-visual recordings, he was able to examine how endocrine physiology and stressors affect the brain areas associated with language learning.

“The award will allow ecological monitoring in Venezuela to continue for years to come, which is critical to understanding how natural selection shapes complex animal communication modalities,” Berg said. 

Dr. Vivian Incera, dean of UTRGV College of Sciences and professor of physics, said hearing this recognition for Berg is well deserved and is a tribute to his dedication to the field of biology, his research, and to the encouragement he shares with his students. 

“Listening to him, observing his passion for his work and the really cool and deep questions he was addressing, I thought how fortunate we all are at UTRGV to have Karl here. How wonderful that our students can learn from and be inspired by somebody like him,” she said. 

ABOUT THE AWARD 

The Maxwell/Hanrahan Foundation award was launched in 2020, to recognize and encourage underappreciated, early, or critical career stage talent and curiosity in field-based research.  

According to the foundation’s website, each winner receives $100,000 in unrestricted funding to help support scientists, “elevate their diverse perspectives and enable them to commit time to observation and experimentations that help us better understand ourselves and the world.”

Visit Maxwell/Hanrahan Foundation Field of Biology Awards to see the full list of winners. 

To read more about Berg’s research and other research underway at the UTRGV Department of Biology, visit utrgv.edu/biology/research and Lab of Avian Ecology.  

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