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Prof. honored for his research

Campus Correspondent

Published: Monday, February 4, 2013

Updated: Friday, August 23, 2013 17:08

The Animal Behavior Society and the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour honored Professor Kentwood D. Wells in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, for his research paper on the social behavior of frogs. The paper, originally published in 1977, was praised for its hypothesis-driven research that shaped current ideas of behavioral ecology.

Titled “The Social Behaviour of Anuran Amphibians,” it is the most cited paper published in the 60-year history of the journal Animal Behaviour. It investigates patterns of reproduction: duration of the mating period, call structure, male positioning and defense.

Wells conducted his research just as behavioral ecology was emerging as a field of study. Before his paper, there was no detailed knowledge of sexual selection or the structure of mating system. Biologists only knew what they could observe. Wells had to think up a quantitative procedure to find out what amphibians are attracted to, in terms of size and species.

“I didn’t grow up loving statistics,” Wells said, “but it was clearly necessary to move the field forward.”

Wells started off with a hypothesis-based research plan. He questioned the effects of loudness of the call, how much movement there was in a pond, and how much energy was required to make a call. While in graduate school at Cornell, he spent three years studying male and female activity in a pond nearby. He found during breeding seasons one-to-two weeks long, green frogs used trial and error to find a mate.

“It’s a scramble competition, they call and grab anything that looks like a female, clods of mud even. Sometimes females get killed and drown because the male frogs are fighting each other off,” Wells said.

Tree and bullfrogs with longer breeding seasons are more territorial. Males defend areas of vegetation by ponds where females lay their eggs. Females choose where they want to lay their eggs based on the males on guard.

This year, Animal Behaviour is commemorating an influential article each month with an essay, to reflect the impact and progress of the research. Wells’ anniversary essay not only praises his research, but also, his writing. It comments on Wells’ ability to summarize vast amounts of information clearly.

A teaching adjunct in the department, Kristiina Hurme was amazed by Wells’ work.

“When I first read his paper on social behavior in anurans, I was floored that he wrote it as a graduate student. It was so clearly thought out and well-written, that it’s obvious that Kentwood was wise beyond his years,” she said. “His classifications were accurate and still hold true today.”

Wells attributes his writing ability to the practice he had in high school.

“I’ve always liked writing synthetic-type papers. I’m a collector of information,” he said, “I have a pile of papers that accumulates even though I’m not writing a book anymore.”

In his book, The Ecology and Behavior of Amphibians, Wells built on the research he did at the small ponds of Ithaca, N.Y. It was published in 2007. Despite this, his 1977 article is still cited more often.

 

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