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Laboratory of Holly Ernest

Melanie LaCava

Melanie LaCava

Melanie LaCavaMelanie LaCava

Position: Ph.D. student
Project: Pronghorn population genomics
Education: B.Sc. in Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology, University of California, Davis, 2013
Phone: (307) 766-6638
Linkedin profile:


Research interests

I am interested in applying genetic and genomic techniques to study wildlife populations, with a foundation in conservation. I aim to utilize existing methods and explore new ideas to produce innovative research that contributes to wildlife conservation and management.


Pronghorn(HollyErnest_2014) (2)State-wide pronghorn population genomics (University of Wyoming doctoral research)

For my PhD, I will be using population genetics and genomics to study the genetic health of pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) populations across the state of Wyoming. I would like to take a multidisciplinary approach to my project by incorporating landscape ecology and/or disease ecology into my research.


Conservation genetics of the endangered Delta smelt (University of California, Davis)

The UC Davis Fish Conservation and Culture Lab (FCCL) maintains a refuge population of endangered Delta smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus), that is genetically managed by the UC Davis Genomic Variation Lab. Despite the conservation status of this species, little is known about key life history traits, such as reproduction, that could impact its management. For my undergraduate honors thesis, I used microsatellite genotyping and genetic parentage analysis to assess natural spawning strategies of cultured Delta smelt at the FCCL.


Comparative genetics in the family Bovidae (San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research)

During a summer fellowship in the Genetics Division at the ICR, I worked on sequencing fragments of genes associated with heat response in the family Bovidae (ruminants) in order to compare desert-dwelling species with closely related species that live in temperate climates. MonkeyOur goal was to identify adaptive genetic markers that could be used in addition to existing neutral genetic markers to improve management of these species and ultimately to assess adaptive potential of species that may be newly exposed to desert conditions due to climate change.



I grew up in San Diego, California, where I discovered my passion for the outdoors and wildlife through rowing, snorkeling, wildlife photography, and anything else that got me outside. I earned my bachelor’s degree in Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology from University of California, Davis where I was on the Division I Women’s Rowing Team for two years. After graduating, I spent six months on an international research team in Morocco studying behavior of Barbary macaques (Macaca sylvanus). I then spent a year working for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research Pacific Pocket Mouse (Perognathus longimembris pacificus) Conservation Breeding/Reintroduction Program, before beginning my PhD at the University of Wyoming. I love exploring new places and ideas, and enjoy learning and teaching others about wildlife conservation.



LaCava, M., K. Fisch, M. Nagel, J.C. Lindberg, B. May, A.J. Finger. 2015. Spawning behavior of cultured Delta Smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus) in a conservation hatchery. North American Journal of Aquaculture 77:255-266.

Long, J.Z., M. LaCava, X. Jin, B.F. Cravatt. 2011. An anatomical and temporal portrait of physiological substrates for fatty acid amide hydrolase. Journal of Lipid Research 52:337-344.



LaCava, M. “Pronghorn adaptations.” Outreach presentation. Bird Rock Elementary, La Jolla, CA. June 2016.

LaCava, M. “Pronghorn ecology and genetics.” Outreach presentation and educational activity. Laramie High School, Laramie, WY. March 2016.

LaCava, M. “The role of genetics in ungulate partial migration,” Ecology, Evolutionary and Organismal Biology graduate student organization. Oral presentation. Laramie, Wyoming. February 2016.

LaCava, M. and C. Duchardt. “Adaptations in the Sagebrush Ecosystem.” Outreach presentation and educational activity. Fourth grade class of 20 students, Beitel Elementary School, Laramie, WY. February 2016.

LaCava, M., Hogan, A., Sankovich, A., Zeglen, M. and M. Ben-David. “Are there sagebrush chipmunks in the Laramie Range?” Zoology/Physiology Brown Bag Seminar Series. Oral presentation. Laramie, WY. December 2015.

LaCava, M. “Genetic analysis of Delta smelt spawning strategies,” Undergraduate Research, Scholarship and Creative Activities Conference. Oral presentation. Davis, CA. April 2013.

LaCava, M. “Genetic variation of genes associated with heat response in desert-dwelling mammals,” San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research Summer Fellowship Presentation. Oral presentation. San Diego, CA. September 2012.


Educational resources:

  • Mark-Recapture Activity: This hands-on activity has the students simulate estimating wildlife population sizes using a method called mark-recapture. This activity is best-suited to high school students.
  • Pronghorn adaptations: This conceptual activity asks students to think about the advantages and disadvantages of some of the physical, behavioral and physiological adaptations that pronghorn have evolved. This activity is best-suited to middle school or high school students.