By Published: Jan. 24, 2024

In her Distinguished Research Lecture March 12, CU Boulder Professor Rebecca Safran will explore the recent and precipitous decrease in the population of barn swallows

Some 10,000 years ago, the construction of the first permanent human settlements created ecological opportunities for certain plants and animals, tying their expansion to ours.

One example is the barn swallow, a species known to build its nests nearly exclusively on human structures. Yet the long history of barn swallows’ living with humans is changing; throughout much of their habitat, the birds’ population is declining.

Rebecca Safran, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado Boulder, has studied barn swallows and what their decline means for the relationship that humans have formed with the birds.

Rebecca Safran

CU Boulder Professor Rebecca Safran will discuss barn swallow and human coexistence in her Distinguished Research Lecture March 12.

She will discuss this topic in a Distinguished Research Lecture at 4 p.m., March 12, with a question-and-answer session and reception to follow, in the Chancellor’s Hall and Auditorium, CASE building, fourth floor.

About Rebecca Safran

Safran earned her doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology from Cornell University after receiving her master’s in wildlife ecology  from Humboldt State University and her bachelor’s in ecology from the University of Michigan. She was a postdoctoral fellow of the Council on Science and Technology at Princeton University before coming to CU Boulder in 2008.

Safran and her team study the evolution of new species, focusing on the causes and consequences of individual variation across different spatial and temporal scales. Her team’s research on the subject has appeared in more than 100 peer-reviewed journals, including Science, Nature, and Current Biology.

Studying the formation of new species is difficult because most species are millions of years old, and what caused them to diverge from their ancestors can no longer be determined. To get around this, Safran and her team study a very closely related group of populations of migratory birds that are now diverging, thus enabling direct studies of the process of speciation.

Barn swallows provide a particular opportunity because their six subspecies evolved more recently and encounter each other naturally. This means that scientists can directly observe the factors that prevent different subspecies from reproducing together.

Safran won a National Science Foundation Early Career Development award to study speciation through barn swallows. In addition to providing federal funding, the award is prestigious, having been granted to Nobel Prize winners such as Carolyn Bertozzi.

If you go
 What: 123rd Distinguished Research Lecture: Barn Swallows and Humans: The Rise and Fall of Coexistence in a Changing World

Who: Professor Rebecca Safran of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

When: 4-5 p.m. Tuesday, March 12

Where: Chancellor’s Hall and Auditorium, CASE

Register now

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Safran’s lab was unable to conduct work in other countries, so she and her team switched their focus to the rapid decline in the population of barn swallows and its implications.

When asked in 2012 about her proudest achievements, Safran told Cynthia Pasquale of CU Connections that, while honored to have won the CAREER award, “I am extremely proud of my graduate students.

“As a research mentor, my No. 1 goal is to inspire students to be curious and to ask good questions. This can only be accomplished by having a deep knowledge of what has been done, so I encourage them to understand the backgrounds of their various fields of interest inside and out.”

During her talk, Safran will focus on the collaborative work conducted with many students from her lab group.

About the Distinguished Research Lectureship

The Distinguished Research Lectureship is among the highest honors given by the faculty to one or more of their colleagues at CU Boulder. Every year, the Research and Innovation Office invites nominations from faculty members for this award, and a review panel recommends recipients.

The lectureship honors tenured faculty members, associate and full research professors, or adjoint professors who have been with CU for at least five years and who are widely recognized for a distinguished body of academic or creative achievement and prominence, as well as contributions to the educational and service missions of CU Boulder. Each recipient typically lectures in the fall or spring after selection and receives a $2,000 honorarium.

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