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Laboratory of Holly Ernest



Read about the latest news from our lab

A photo of a woman with black hair messily tied into a ponytail, smiling directly at the camera.

Honoring one of Holly’s past students, Loreto Godoy, the 8th annual Loreto Godoy Memorial Fellowship has been awarded to Neetha Iyer

Neetha Iyer is an ecologist from India who is fascinated by the complex interactions between animal behavior, disease, and the environment.

She is interested in understanding the factors that influence sociality and group-living. She is specifically curious about the ecological dynamics that influence how and why wild animals become infected with parasites. For her PhD dissertation, she is scratching this curiosity itch by studying the behavior and parasites of the critically-endangered Grauer’s gorilla endemic to eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. She is investigating whether social groups of gorillas serve as islands for parasite transmission, despite the high degree of home range overlap observed in the species. To answer this question, she is using genetic data from gastrointestinal nematode worms that are transmitted between gorillas through the environment.

In addition, she is interested in ecological factors that influence behavioral variation in this African great ape, a close relative to humans. She hopes her research can be used by wildlife managers and applied to conservation efforts to protect endangered primates and other animals that are increasingly threatened by deforestation and other human-induced environmental changes.

Holly Ernest was Loreto’s professor at UC Davis and looks forward to honoring the past student every year with the memorial fellowship.

Learn more about the Loreto fellowship:

mule deer in front of road

Melanie LaCava, Holly Ernest, and the Wyoming Game & Fish Department recently published a paper about Chronic Wasting Disease in mule deer, finding evidence that the disease is driving evolution in the species.

With WGFD, the team collected samples from mule deer throughout Wyoming, where chronic wasting disease has gradually spread over the past several decades. They found that a single genetic mutation linked to slower disease progression has become more common over time and that individuals with the slow mutation were less likely to test positive for the disease, providing evidence of disease-driven evolution in mule deer.

Read more:

Read the article:

Learn more about the lab’s mule deer research:

Marine Mammal Science Editors' Select Series. Presents: Reintroductions have saved the sea otter throughout North America: why should we care? with Dr. Shawn Larson

Holly Ernest & Erick Gagne recently assisted Dr. Shawn Larson on her award-winning paper: “Translocations maintain genetic diversity and increase connectivity in sea otters”, published in Marine Mammal Science.

The paper was awarded the Society for Marine Mammalogy Editor’s Select Series, and is available to the public to read for the month of July. Larson will be giving an online talk about the work on July 15, and the talk will be available on YouTube thereafter.

After the maritime fur trade left scattered sea otter populations with low genetic diversity, subsequent reintroductions have resulted in several new populations of sea otters in North America. Ernest & Gagne assisted Larson in sampling the genetic data of sea otters in California to study the genetic diversity, population structure, and geneflow of the groups. They found that genetic diversity was the highest in reintroduced populations – showing that translocation is arguably the greatest success in sea otter conservation.

Read the article:

Read about the talk, award, and more:

Learn more about the lab’s sea otter research:

La Cava graduation portrait

Melanie Graduates with a PhD, publishes article in Ecography Journal

Lab member Melanie LaCava recently defended her dissertation and graduated from the University of Wyoming with a PhD in Ecology and a graduate minor in Environment and Natural Resources. Congrats, Melanie!

As part of her doctoral research, she led a paper published in Ecography Journal investigating the genetic similarity of mule deer throughout Wyoming and relating it to the environment using #LandscapeGenomics. The research was recently featured on Wyoming Public Radio.

Melanie will go on to be a postdoctoral researcher in the Genomic Variation Lab at UC Davis, focused on conservation genomics of Delta Smelt.

Read the article:

Read more:

Learn more about her research:

Will Swain

Lab Member Highlight: Will SWAIN

Will studied as a Regents Scholar at UC Davis, earning his B.S. in Microbiology in 2016, then earning his M.Sc. in One Health through a joint program offered between the Royal Veterinary College and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in 2019. Will’s work in our lab focused on assisting with projects involving Wyoming elk population genomics and chronic wasting disease (CWD). In the future, he hopes to broadly study disease ecology and drivers of infectious diseases at multispecies interfaces, especially zoonoses. One fun fact about Will is in high school he was an internationally-ranked competitive fencer.

Megan Dudenhoeffer in lab

Megan Defends her thesis

Congratulations to Megan Dudenhoeffer for successfully defending her master’s research at University of Manitoba: Arctic fox winter diet variation during damped lemming cycles estimated using molecular methods and fecal DNA. Megan used fecal DNA to identify Arctic fox diet and individuals with assistance from the Assiniboine Park Conservancy and the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. To read more about Megan’s research in the Arctic read this she co-authored for Arctic Focus:

Megan working in lab

Lab Member Highlight: Megan dudenhoeffer

Megan joined the lab in January 2020 as an assistant research scientist and is extremely excited to be back at the University of Wyoming where she earned her B.S. in Zoology in 2017. Megan’s job focuses on genetically typing black bears and mountain lions for population ecology projects. Currently she is getting ready to defend her master’s thesis at University of Manitoba where she used fecal DNA to study Arctic foxes. One fun fact about Megan is that she has studied poop at every step in her “crappy” career.
#wildlifegenetics #womeninscience #poopscience

Laura Johnson

Lab Member Highlight: Laura Johnson

Laura Johnson joined the Ernest lab in November 2018 and is the lab manager. She received her Master’s in Halifax, Canada where she studied the migratory patterns of the Northern Long-eared bat using genetics. Her current projects focus on obtaining genetic profiles for black bears and mountain lions. One fun fact about Laura is that she has lived in so many places her friends and family have lost track. Read more about Laura on our lab website:         
#canadianscientist #wildlifegenetics #womeninscience

Melanie holding a bowl with hummingbirds

Lab member highlight: Melanie LaCava

Melanie is a PhD candidate in the Ernest lab and joined in 2015. Melanie is from San Diego and earned her B.S. from UC Davis. For her PhD she is studying population genomics of Wyoming pronghorn and mule deer, as well as the relationship between genetics and chronic wasting disease dynamics in Wyoming mule deer. In addition to research, Melanie is an active member of the PhD Program in Ecology on campus and enjoys doing educational outreach. One of Melanie’s hobbies is wildlife photography and she especially enjoys using photography to get to know her study species. To read more about Melanie and her research, visit:

Adrienne presenting poster
Nicole graduation photo

The Ernest Wildlife Genomics and Disease Ecology lab had two members graduate from University of Wyoming.

Congratulations to Adrienne Mackenzie (BS) and Nicole Carter (MS) for finishing their degrees during #COVID19 in 2020! Adrienne graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Animal Science (concentration: Pre-Veterinary Sciences) with minors in Honors and Molecular Biology. Nicole completed concurrent majors during her master’s in Veterinary Sciences and in Environmental and Natural Resource Sciences (Haub School). We all look forward to seeing what Adrienne and Nicole accomplish in their careers!

Bighorn Sheep

Photo credit Melanie LaCava

Bighorn sheep research of Dr. Sierra Love Stowell in our lab published last week found that Wyoming bighorn sheep have distinct genetic populations.

This has important ramifications for conservation of this iconic ungulate. This is an interesting contrast with the low genetic differentiation of pronghorn in Wyoming also published within the week.

Dr. Love Stowell and coauthors followed the long-term impact of translocation of bighorn sheep, which is used as a wildlife management tool by the state. We found that there are at least five distinct genetic clusters of the sheep in the major mountain ranges in Wyoming. Our study also found there was high gene flow — genetic interchange due to movement of animals with resulting successful breeding — among herds that had translocation sources in common, and herds that received translocated individuals from other herds.

Read the press release:

Read more about our research:

The southern part of the Great Gray Owl breeding range in the western US.

Range map: The southern part of the Great Gray Owl breeding
range in the western US. Dark gray outline delineates areas of documented breeding range in detail; red points represent unique sampling locations, and the number of individuals sampled.

Our lab’s new paper showing low genetic diversity in Great Gray Owls over a four-state region, led by M.S. graduate Beth Mendelsohn, published this week.

Lower genetic diversity in the owls means they adapt less quickly to changes in their environment, like fire, human development, stresses caused by viruses like West Nile, and other diseases. This study constitutes the first genomic work on Great Gray owls and the first genetic analysis that includes Wyoming, which represents the southern extent of the species range in the Rocky Mountains, impacted by habitat loss.

Read more about our research:
Read the press release:

Pronghorn in field

A new paper published from our lab, led by PhD Candidate Melanie LaCava, found that pronghorn have little-to-no genetic differentiation throughout Wyoming.

Pronghorn populations in Wyoming span hundreds of kilometers across multiple mountain ranges and major highways. While pronghorn behavior is impacted by these obstacles, they exhibit flexible behavior – some seasonally migrate, some don’t, and they switch social groups. This could be the reason for the low genetic differentiation across the state.

Read more about our research:

Read the full press release:


Adrienne Mackenzie graduates

Adrienne Mackenzie graduated and continues in our lab as a postgraduate wildlife disease researcher.  She joined the Ernest lab in May 2017. Her research is focused on the level of blood parasites (called “hemoparasites”) in Rocky Mountain hummingbirds. A fun fact about Adrienne is that she’s a sixth-generation Wyomingite.


resources for kids

If you are at home with the kids during #COVID19 and need some fun educational activities check out the teaching resources for kids we have on our website. We have activities involving food-webs, mark-recapture, and animal adaptations!

Meghan Zulian

The 7th annual Loreto Godoy memorial scholarship (honoring one of Holly’s past students) has been awarded to Meghan Zulian.

As a geochemist, Meghan is fascinated by the wealth of chemical information stored in the shells of marine organisms. In her Ph.D. research, she uses this chemical information to examine the impacts of climate change on culturally, ecologically, and economically important shellfish. Specifically, she’s investigating shells of pacific oysters, red, and endangered white abalone to understand how exposure to low pH impacts their long-term resilience. She is also a lead Ph.D. student on a project supported by the Lenfest Ocean Program to synthesize millions of data points from the West Coast of the U.S. to generate high-resolution maps of interacting environmental stressors. Her research aims to understand fundamental issues associated with ocean acidification, in a way that is applicable to resource managers, conservation groups, and stakeholders.

Holly Ernest was Loreto’s professor at UC Davis and looks forward to honoring the past student every year with the memorial fellowship.

Learn more about Meghan:
Learn more about the Loreto fellowship:

Amy Collins in the field

Honoring one of Holly’s past students, Loreto Godoy, we are excited to announce the next two Loreto Godoy Memorial Fellowship Awardees: Amy Collins and Meghan Zulian.

This post will feature Amy. Meghan will be featured in a future post coming next very soon.

Amy is a wildlife conservationist interested in spatial ecology, urban ecology and animal behavior. Amy’s main focus is the impact of human disturbance on mammal movement and behavior. She is currently exploring how traffic-related noise and light pollution causes spatial avoidance and increased nocturnality at wildlife corridors. Amy is also using wildlife camera traps in California to reveal whether traffic-related noise invokes a fear response from prey and mesopredators such as deer, bobcat and coyote.

Amy holds a Master of Science in Biology (Ecology, Evolution and Conservation) and a Bachelor of Science with Honors from the University of Leeds, UK. She is currently a UC Davis PhD student in the Van Vuren Lab at the Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology Department. Amy is an active member of the Graduate Group in Ecology, and led the Society for Conservation Biology Davis chapter for two years.

Holly Ernest was Loreto’s professor at UC Davis and looks forward to honoring the past student every year with the memorial fellowship.

Learn more about the Loreto fellowship:

Hummingbird in hands

Bird migration is happening!

If you see any hummingbirds in your backyard or around town please report your sightings to @Team_eBird and learn more about how you can help Hummingbirds and our Hummingbird Health program at these links:

Nicole Carter defense poster

Nicole Carter defends thesis

On April 28, 2020, Nicole Carter successfully defended her master’s thesis! Nicole had 26 people attend her defense via zoom and gave an excellent presentation. We at the Ernest lab are all incredibly proud of Nicole and her research!

Learn more about Nicole >

Nicole Carter

Lab Member Highlight: Nicole Carter

Nicole Carter joined the Ernest lab in August 2018. She received her B.S. in Biology from the University of Idaho and is currently pursuing a dual major M.S. in veterinary sciences and environment & natural resources. Her research investigates the relationship between genetics and disease in southern sea otters. A fun fact about Nicole, she was a sprinter on the Division 1 track and field team at the University of Idaho and currently plays for the University of Wyoming club soccer team. To learn more about Nicole and her research check out her profile.

zoom meeting

Ernest Lab members working from home

Ernest Lab members are working from home these days, but we still meet multiple times a week via Zoom to stay connected. Here we are with most of our study species! In the next few weeks, we will be posting bios introducing each lab member & their research. From the top-right we have Dr. Holly Ernest, Megan Dudenhoeffer (@Megdaddyjr), Nicole Carter, middle right: Laura Johnson, Melanie LaCava, William Swain, bottom: Adrienne Mackenzie.

Learn more about our lab:

Boomerang article

The largest land bridge in the world, to be built in California, and featured in the LA Times and the Laramie Boomerang, is based on some of our lab’s genetic data on the mountain lion named P22 (the Griffin Park/Hollywood lion)

Our lab has been studying California mountain lions (and P22) since the mid-1990’s, and their population genetic structure in the highly fragmented southern California landscape. This fractured genetic connectivity has shown to threaten southern California mountain lions. This land bridge should eventually help to decrease their mortality rates and increase genetic diversity. University of Nebraska (see John Benson’s work here:, UCLA, and UC Davis also contributed data and research.

Read about our mountain lion research:

Holly Errnest ESA certificate

Holly just certified as a Senior Ecologist with the Ecological Society of America (ESA)

The application required Holly to demonstrate that her research experience qualifies her for the rigorous senior certification process, including:

  • Demonstration, in work output, of thorough knowledge of the literature and scientific principles and theories of ecology;
  • Demonstration of written original contributions or original interpretation of ecological information; and
  • Demonstration of technical or organizational competence as evidenced by supervision of projects.

Learn more about Holly:

A remote camera captures a radio collared cougar in Griffith Park.

Our lab’s genetic research on CA mountain lions mentioned today in an LA Times story; data was a key component for the petition presented to CA Fish & Game Commission

Mountain lions as a species are not threatened in California, but a petition submitted Tuesday to the state Fish and Game Commission argues that six isolated and genetically distinct cougar clans from Santa Cruz to the U.S.-Mexico border comprise a subpopulation that is threatened by extinction, based on our lab’s research.

Read the full article:

Learn more about our mountain lion research:

ESA certificate

Melanie LaCava, a PhD candidate in our lab, was just certified as an Associate Ecologist with the Ecological Society of America (ESA)

The application required Melanie to demonstrate that her research experience and coursework qualify her for the rigorous certification process, in addition to providing two letters of recommendation from professionals in the field.

Learn more about Melanie:

Adrienne Mackenzie

Wildlife Genomics & Disease Ecology undergrad intern Adrienne Mackenzie, mentored by PhD Candidate Brady Godwin, was awarded two scholarships totaling $11,850!

Adrienne received the Wyoming Research Scholars Program (WRSP) Scholarship and presented her poster about hummingbirds and the effects of climate change and pathological blood parasites at Undergraduate Research Days. She also received the 2019 NASA Space Undergraduate Research Fellowship award.

Learn more about our lab:

Broad-tailed Hummingbird photo by Mark Gocke.

PhD candidate Brady Godwin presented to the Fort Collins Audubon on May 9, 2019 about hummingbird population genomics, conservation, and more

Brady Godwin presented an overview of the population genomics research done with hummingbirds in our lab, along with general hummingbird ecology in the Rocky Mountains, hummingbird conservation, local gardening tips, how banding helps birds, hummingbird population genetic information, and information on emerging hummingbird diseases.

Learn more about our hummingbird research:

Learn more about Brady:

Missouri Southern student Cameron Priester looks for snails

Our lab affiliate and collaborator, Dr. Kyle Gustafson’s lab at Missouri Southern State University, is studying snails & the impact of mining cleanup

Dr. Kyle Gustafson, along with student Cameron Priester, are researching the shell composition of snails from areas that have undergone significant cleanup efforts decades after the mining industry left its mark on the landscape. Most snails take up minerals from their surroundings, at least to some degree, Priester said. But what he hopes to discover is whether the snails absorbed anything more harmful, such as lead or zinc.

Read the article:

Journal cover & thumnail of website

Emily Graves and our collaborators at UC Davis have an interesting paper just out: Analysis of insecticide exposure in CA hummingbirds using mass spectrometry

The paper documents that hummingbirds found in California are exposed to insecticides, including neonicotinoids that are widely available and have detrimental impacts to native bees and other ecologically-important invertebrates. Part of the problem is that these chemicals are systemic and incorporated into the pollen and nectar of treated plants, where they come into contact with or are ingested by pollinating species – including hummingbirds. This work also documented minimally-invasive feather testing as a viable method for monitoring bird exposure to pesticides.

View the paper:

Or view a full-text view-only version of paper:

Learn more about our collaborators:

Sea Otter Conservation Workshop

Nicole, Erick & Holly attended the Sea Otter Conservation Workshop 2019 at the Seattle Aquarium.

Nicole presented on her work to investigate how disease outcome is related to genetics and family lines. Erick presented on his findings tracking genetic diversity and effective population sizes in southern sea otters using a large data set of over 1000 individuals sampled over 15 years. The workshop is the largest meeting of sea otter biologists in the world and saw packed attendance this year.

Read about our sea otter research:

Mountain Lion video

A new video about California mountain lions and how migration affects genetics and survival features our lab’s research

Episode 5 on features the work Erick Gagne and Kyle Gustafson completed in our lab, covering how migration plays a significant role in the survival of the lion species as it helps mix genetics throughout California, making the species stronger as a whole. The video also features Holly’s primary PhD professor/mentor, Dr. Walter Boyce. Holly began genetics research on California mountain lions 24 years ago in Dr. Boyce’s lab, along with the UC Davis Veterinary Genetics Lab with Dr. Cecilia Penedo, and mentored by conservation geneticist Dr. Bernie May.

Read about our mountain lion research:

Photo Credit: Johanna Turner ScienceDaily, 20 March 2019

New paper published about the local extinction of Southern CA mountain lions isolated by urbanization

The local extinction of mountain lions within 50 years is possible for two isolated mountain lion populations in southern California’s Santa Ana and Santa Monica Mountains. The extinction risk is due to low genetic diversity and mortality that affects the stability of the population, based on DNA data generated by the work of our lab and assistance from Dr. Kyle Gustafson (when he was working in our lab) and Dr. Tracy Drazenovich (when she was working in Holly’s lab in UC Davis). But increasing connectivity could help — our model predicted that these populations can persist with relatively modest increases in landscape connectivity.

Read the paper:

Read about the article:

Read about our mountain lion research:

Desert Bighorn sheep

Our research article studying the genetic outcomes of translocation of bighorn sheep in Arizona published in The Journal of Wildlife Management

Holly, along with Daphne Gille at the University of California-Davis, led a seven-year study following the genetic structure and diversity of bighorn sheep using microsatellite and DNA data in 16 native and translocated bighorn sheep populations. They found that it’s possible to re-establish bighorn sheep populations without a reduction of gene diversity and without erosion of ancestral lineage – great news for translocation efforts, which are often used in wildlife management to increase population abundance to threatened species, restore animals to their historical range, and preserve biodiversity, among other goals.

Read the press release:

Read the paper here:

Read about the article on these sites:

Read about our bighorn sheep research:

Read about Daphne:

Adrienne holding a hummingbird

Brady, PhD Candidate in Program in Ecology, and Adrienne, undergraduate researcher in Wildlife Genomics and Disease Ecology, just returned from trip to San Francisco State University & UC Davis to collaborate with experts and learn new lab/data analysis techniques

Two of our lab members, Brady Godwin and Adrienne Mackenzie, just returned from San Francisco State University and University of California Davis to learn new lab and data analysis techniques from Dr. Ravinder Seghal and Dr. Lisa Tell. Brady is lead PhD Candidate and Adrienne is an undergrad researcher in Wildlife Genomics and Disease Ecology, studying blood parasites in Wyoming/Rocky Mountain hummingbirds. The new techniques will help them with their research to learn how hummingbirds are affected by these parasites.

Learn more about Dr. Ravinder Sehgal and his research:

Learn more about Dr. Lisa Tell and her research :

Learn more about our hummingbird research:

Great Gray Owl

Congrats to Beth Mendelsohn for her successful MS defense of the pop. genomics of Great Gray Owls in the western United States!

Beth’s conservation genetics data on the Great Gray Owl in Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon and California help us to better understand the owl’s connectivity and genetic diversity across their range in the west.

Read more about our owl research:

Learn more about Beth:

Beth Mendelsohn

mountian lion

Our paper about California mountain lion populations becoming splintered as a result of development getting national attention

The new study, titled “Genetic Source-Sink Dynamics Among Naturally Structured and Anthropogenically Fragmented Puma Populations,” was published Dec. 10 in Conservation Genetics, and found that habitat fragmentation is splintering California’s mountain lion (Puma concolor) populations. As urbanization between Los Angeles and San Diego spreads across landscapes historically used by mountain lions, it is causing some groups of mountain lions to become less genetically diverse, and is leading to inbreeding, raising concerns about the populations’ long-term health.

The paper is now featured on the home page of The Wildlife Society’s website. Read the article here:

Read more about our mountain lion research:

Loreto Godoy holding bird

Honoring Loreto Godoy, one of Holly’s past students, the Loreto Godoy Memorial Fellowship has been awarded to Gina Tarbill

In her Ph.D. research, Gina uses pollination networks in post-fire forests as a model system to better understand community dis/assembly, network dependence and vulnerability, and the community response to species invasions or extirpations after large-scale disturbance. She hopes to improve our understanding of how pollinators, particularly hummingbirds, use post-fire habitats during breeding and migration to identify important plant species or communities.  Gina’s passion for increasing diversity and inclusion in STEM fields has led her to volunteer to teach science, critical thinking skills, and environmental stewardship to students from underserved elementary schools in the Sacramento area with Sierra Nevada Journeys. After completing her Ph.D., she plans to continue teaching and conducting research in community ecology. Gina enjoys birding, hiking, kayaking and traveling with her family.

Holly Ernest was Loreto’s professor at UC Davis and looks forward to honoring the past student every year with the memorial fellowship.

Learn more about the Loreto fellowship:

Hummingbird, sea otter, and owl images

Getting our 3 presentations ready for the upcoming WY Wildlife Society meeting, Nov 6-8!

Adrienne Mackenzie, assisted by Brady Godwin, will be presenting a poster on determining the prevalence of blood parasites in Rocky Mountain Broad-tailed Hummingbirds.

Nicole Carter, assisted by Erick Gagne, will be presenting a poster about the genetics of Sea Otters and how it applies to ecology and conservation.

And, Beth Mendelsohn will be giving a talk about the population genomics of Great Gray Owls at the edge of their range in North America.

Learn more about our research:

Learn more about Adrienne, Brady, Nicole, Erick, and Beth:

Figures for paper

New paper accepted to Journal for Nature Conservation: Optimal DNA blood extractions on preservation paper limits conservation genomics, not genetic applications.

Sierra M. Love Stowell, Erin G. Bentley, Roderick B. Gagne, Kyle D. Gustafson, Linda Y. Rutledge, Holly B. Ernest.

The paper covers the challenges of collecting and preserving biological samples from rare and elusive wildlife species. Blood samples on preservation paper are commonly used across a wide range of animals as a convenient and non-destructive method to obtain and store DNA. While this method has been successfully used for genetic applications, genomic methods require large quantities of high-quality DNA and paper preservation methods can limit DNA availability, especially for mammals which have non-nucleated blood cells. Thus, high-yield DNA extraction methods are required to providing adequate unfragmented DNA for downstream genomic applications. We recommend that researchers optimize their extraction methods and consider collecting fresh blood or tissue for genomic applications.

Read more about the paper:

Learn more about our research:

Check out Dr. Sierra Love Stowell’s research here:

Wildlife Disease Association Conference logo
Ecological Society of America Conference logo

Lab members and collaborators at conferences this week!

Holly is at the Wildlife Disease Association Conference, serving on WDA Council:

Erick is at the Ecological Society of America Conference, presenting on the Comparative landscape genomics of southern California mountain lion populations across an urban landscape:

Emily Graves is also at the Ecological Society of America Conference, presenting on the Insecticide exposure in California hummingbirds using liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-HRMS)

Learn more about our lab members and our research at:

Lab logo

We have two openings in our lab!

A post-doctoral research position is available to research wildlife population genetics & genomics.

A laboratory technician position is available to assist research in wildlife population genetics & genomics.

Both positions will be primarily lab-based within the Ernest Wildlife Genomics and Disease Ecology Laboratory in the Department of Veterinary Sciences which has affiliations with the University of Wyoming (UW) Graduate Program in Ecology.

*Apply as soon as possible, applications will be reviewed as they are received.

Learn more:

Puma disperseral points in San Diego County, California: Zeller et all 2018

Collaborator paper recognized as “Editor’s Choice” in journal Diversity and Distributions.

Kathy Zeller’s paper, which we collaborated on, was recently recognized as “editor’s choice” in the journal Diversity and Distributions. The paper includes some of our mountain lion genetic data and findings, as well as telemetry and other data/findings of collaborators. Nice work, Kathy

Learn more about our mountain lion work:

Read the paper:

View the journal Diversity and Distributions editor’s choice picks:

Hummingbird in hands

It’s pollinator week!

In honor of Pollinator Week (, the Wildlife Genomics and Disease Ecology Lab would like to highlight their work on hummingbirds: important but perhaps underappreciated pollinators. The conservation genetics and population health work by Holly Ernest, Brady Godwin, and collaborators helps to better understand the ecology, health, and diseases of these birds throughout the Rocky Mountains and the American West. Support our pollinator friends this week and throughout the summer!

Support hummingbirds at home with a pollinator-friendly garden! Learn more at:

Learn more about our hummingbird research:

Learn more about Brady:

Brady examing hummingbird with magnifying glass

Brady examing hummingbird
Photo credit Graeme Ernest-Hoar

Broad-tailed hummingbird in Big Horns

Hummingbird in Big Horns
Photo credit Brady Godwin

Brady & Holly completed a field work hummingbird road trip to the Bighorn Mountains last week (June 10-14, 2018)

They took the Humm-Mobile, mobile lab, to fill a remaining sampling gap for Brady’s Broad-tailed Hummingbird research. Many thanks to our Bighorn Mtns site hosts, a private family ranch (Thanks Charlie and owners!) and the HF Bar Ranch (Thanks Margi, Richard, and Ranch staff!  Many thanks as well to those who helped us make connections to good hummingbird study sites, including the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and Nature Conservancy Buffalo, WY regional offices.

Using next-generation DNA sequencing, genomic research techniques, geographic information systems (GIS) to map locations, field identifications, and health exams of individual birds, we are examining population biology and hummingbird health, including genetic diversity and disease ecology.

We’ll keep you updated on what we find out!

Learn more about our hummingbird research:

Learn more about Brady:

Undergrad picture showing Maggie, Emily, Erin, Adrienne

Left to right, Maggie, Emily, Erin, Adrienne

Admiration and big thanks to the awesome undergrad researchers in our lab: Maggie, Emily, Erin, and Adrienne!

These students work in the lab, along side graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and the lab manager/research associate, organizing wildlife data, cutting up and pipetting all sorts of samples to prepare them for DNA extraction, providing ideas on research studies.

Erin Bentley, now a post-graduate, will be moving on to Alex Buerkle’s UWyo Lab to start a Master’s Degree in Botany Fall 2018, and we welcome Maggie Johnson, who started with us this May!

Learn more about the people in our lab

Sea otters

New sea otter conservation genetics paper accepted to Evolutionary Applications: Measures of effective pop. size reveal special considerations for wide-ranging species.

The paper provides analyses and data vitally necessary for southern sea otter (SSO) recovery.  This very small subspecies has been hovering at a few thousand animals along the California coast, and has been hit hard by diseases including Toxoplasma brain disease and others, as well as shark attacks and illegal shootings.  We provide evidence that SSO genetic diversity is low and staying low – even with modest increases in population numbers, genetic diversity has not increased.

The paper also examined one of the methods that is included in the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s southern sea otter recovery plan, “effective population size” (Ne), and shows that the way Ne is calculated can make important differences in the final number.  The US Fish and Wildlife Service uses Ne to determine when the SSO is to be delisted as a federally Threatened Species.  If they use old methods, the SSO may be delisted too soon for true recovery.

Read the UW press release:

Read more about the paper:

Learn more about our sea otter research:

Learn more about Erick:

Read the paper online:

Brady Godwin

Congrats to Brady Godwin!

Brady just passed the PhD qualifying exam to advance to candidacy! Brady is currently researching the population genomics of hummingbirds.

Learn more about our hummingbird research:

Learn more about Brady:

Kyle Gustafson headshot

Dr. Kyle Gustafson the 2018 Ashton Cuckler New Investigator Award

The American Society of Parasitologists awards Dr. Kyle Gustafson the 2018 Ashton Cuckler New Investigator Award for his contributions to the field of parasitology. He will receive the award at the national conference in Cancun, Mexico on June 24th.

Learn more about Kyle:

Melanie LaCava in the snow

Melanie LaCava just passed one of the largest hurdles to obtaining her PhD:

Melanie just passed her qualifying exam – one of the biggest hurdles to obtaining a PhD – now advancing to candidacy. Congrats, Melanie!

Learn more about our Pronghorn research:

Learn more about our Mule Deer research:

Learn more about Melanie:

Pronghorn in field

Melanie LaCava interviewed on Right to Roam’s podcast

Melanie, along with Adele Reinking, digest some of the unique attributes and obstacles that pronghorn face throughout the course of their lives. Fetal competition and their adaptability (or lack thereof) to human influence are just a couple of the topics covered during this episode.

Learn more about our Pronghorn research:

Listen to the podcast: 2018/02/22/episode adele-reinking-and-melanie-lacava/

Mule Deer

Chronic Wasting Disease and mule deer population genetics in WY

With mule deer declines and diagnosed cases of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) increasing across Wyoming (most recently in Meeteetse), it’s more important than ever to look at how disease, genetic diversity, migratory movements, and land development and use activities in Wyoming are interacting to impact population health and numbers of mule deer.

Before this new study, there has been no comprehensive statewide population genetic and CWD genotype analysis of Wyoming mule deer. Providing such an analysis will allow wildlife agencies including the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish to better manage and conserve mule deer.

View our mule deer research:
Read about Wyoming Game and Fish recommendations for hunters:

Holly giving Saturday-U talk

Holly presented “Giving a Hoot about Wildlife Genetics: Enhancing the Survival of Western Wyoming’s Bighorn Sheep and Owls” at the Fall 2017 Saturday U at the National Museum of Wildlife in Jackson Hole.

Genetic diversity is key to the long-term survival of a healthy population of any animal species. This is even more true for threatened species near Jackson, like Bighorn Sheep and Great Gray Owls. Holly and her lab study these herds and flocks to work out their genome and help wildlife and land managers evaluate ways to assist in their long-term survival.

Saturday University is a collaborative program connecting popular University of Wyoming professors with Wyoming residents who have a desire to learn.

To view the talk:
For more info about Saturday U, visit the website at
For more info on bighorn sheep:
For more info on owls:

Brady presenting at WY TWS

Brady’s talk, Hummingbird genomics, WY-TWS conf, Jackson WY

Beth with her poster presentation

Beth (L) poster, Great Gray Owl pop. genomics; Susan Patla (R, WGFD wildlife biologist collaborator). WY-TWS conf, Jackson, WY

Melanie's poster presentation

Melanie (L) Mule Deer pop.genomics x CWD research. Adele (R; colleague ungulate ecologist). WY-TWS conf.Jackson, WY.

Sierra presenting at TWS

Sierra talk, Bighorn sheep pop. genomics, WY-TWS, Jackson, WY, Dec 7, 2017.

Talks and poster presentations for five of our lab members a success at WY Chapter of The Wildlife Society Conference last week!

Poster presentations:

Beth Mendelsohn presented on population genomics of great gray owls, and Melanie LaCava presented on landscape genomics /population health in Wyoming Mule Deer.

Oral presentations:
Sierra M. Love Stowell presented about identifying genetic clusters and assessing genetic diversity in bighorn sheep, Brady Godwin presented about the population genomics of hummingbirds in California and Wyoming, and Holly Ernest presented tips for Wildlife Biologists for applied use of genetics to get ecological data to help with wildlife conservation and management.

WYTWS logo

5 of our lab members are heading to the WY Chapter of The Wildlife Society Conference in Jackson WY to present Dec 5-7, 2017– which means a lab road trip for us!

Poster presentations:

  • Beth Mendelsohn will be presenting on the population genomics of great gray owls (see abstract on page 9)
  • Melanie LaCava will be presenting on landscape genomics and population health in Wyoming Mule Deer (see abstract page 8).

Oral presentations:

  • Sierra M. Love Stowell will be speaking about identifying genetic clusters and assessing genetic diversity in Wyoming’s bighorn sheep (see abstract on page 22)
  • Brady Godwin will be presenting about the population genomics of hummingbirds in California and Wyoming (see abstract on page 8)
  • Holly Ernest will be speaking about five practical tips for strategic use of genetics in applied wildlife conservation and management (see abstract on page 2)
Philipp in the field

Photo credit Diana Caballero Alvarado

Honoring one of Holly’s past students, the Loreto Godoy Memorial Fellowship has been awarded to Phillip Brand

Philipp Brand received the 4rd annual Loreto Godoy Memorial Fellowship for 2017-2018. Philipp is an evolutionary biologist interested in speciation and sensory evolution in insects (the most abundant wildlife on earth!). Phillipp is interested in the sensory biology, neurophysiology, chemical ecology, and olfactory memory involved in pheromone communication and the underlying molecular mechanisms through which these evolve. His main focus is the evolution of chemical communication in orchid bees, a charismatic group of insects known for their unique “perfume collecting” behavior. Male orchid bees collect scents from flowers and non-floral sources such as rotting wood or fungi to concoct a species-specific chemical mixture we call ‘perfume’. The accumulated ‘perfume blend’ is eventually released in order to attract conspecific females for mating.

He holds a Masters of Science in Biology (Genetics and Evolution) and a Bachelor of Science from Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf. He is currently a PhD student in the Santiago Ramirez Lab at the Center for Population Biology at UC Davis as a PhD candidate in the PopBio Graduate Group. Learn more about Phillipp

Holly Ernest was Loreto’s professor at UC Davis and looks forward to honoring the past student every year with the memorial fellowship.

Learn more about Phillipp:
Learn more about the Loreto fellowship:

Mountain Lions: Quinton Martins/Audubon Canyon Ranch

Photo credit Quinton Martins/Audubon Canyon Ranch

We’re collaborating with Dr. Quinton Martins and the Audubon Canyon Ranch in California on a mountain lion telemetry project.

The ranch was recently ravaged by the fires in Northern California, and is accepting donations to help rebuild the project at:

We’ll be analyzing his first 6 mountain lions to help develop a family tree that Dr. Martins will use alongside his field work and telemetry, and that we’ll use on broader regional scale population genetics studies to learn how mountain lions are doing in terms of genetic diversity and population health.
Learn more about our mountain lion research:

A pet domestic ferret in leaves

A pet domestic ferret (Mustela putorius furo). Photo credit and copyright: Robert Church, BCPhoto

Domestic ferrets are inbred on a global scale and have dangerously low genetic diversity!

Our study, published in Evolutionary Applications, shows domestic ferrets are inbred on a global scale and have dangerously low genetic diversity. Ferret owners and veterinarians should be made aware of potential inbreeding depression and breeding programs should consider diversifying their genetic stock.

Read more:
Founder events, isolation, and inbreeding: Intercontinental genetic structure of the domestic ferret

A male mountain lion looks at camera

A 100-pound male mountain lion, one of about 20 in about 20 in the Santa Ana Mountains, rests in a cage in 2012. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

The gene pool of inbred pumas is enhanced by one migrant but wildlife corridors are needed!

Our study, published with the Royal Society, shows the inbred Santa Ana Puma population’s genetic diversity was enhanced by a single migrant that sired 11 offspring. But that may not be enough! A companion paper proposes a wildlife conservation network that could ensure long-term gene flow and population viability.

Read more:
Royal Society Open Science: “A single migrant enhances the genetic diversity of an inbred puma population
LOS ONE: “Multi-level, multi-scale resource selection functions and resistance surfaces for conservation planning: Pumas as a case study” P
LA Times: “A Riverside County mountain lion sired 11 kittens, but that won’t fix weak gene pool

Science Olympiad testing
Melanie grading Science Olympiad tests

Science Olympiad a success!

Beth Mendelsohn, Melanie LaCava, and Brady Godwin volunteered to create, administer and grade the ecology exam for the Wyoming State Science Olympiad Tournament (held in Casper this year). Their exam included museum skulls, microscopes, and food webs among other things for teams of middle and high school students – who participated for fun!

One sample question below… can you answer it?

What type of species interaction (competition, mutualism, commensalism, parasitism, predation) is each of the below strategies?

_________________Bees use flower nectar for food, and while collecting the nectar transport pollen from one flower to the next
_________________Algae and Fungi come together to create Lichens, fungus gets energy from the algae, and the algae get a moist protected habitat
_________________Red-breasted nuthatches excavate small cavities in dead trees for nesting
_________________Mountain pine beetles lay their eggs under the bark of pine trees. When the larvae hatch, they feed on the phloem of the tree, disrupting nutrient transport
_________________Pine martens hunt and eat squirrels

Answers, in order: Mutualism, Mutualism, Commensalism, Parasitism, Predation

More about Science Olympiad: and

Presentation screenshot of Genetic assessment of CA sea otters

Erick traveled to Seattle to present genetics of threatened southern sea otter at the 10th Annual Sea Otter Conservation Workshop

Erick Gagne traveled to Seattle to present genetic research on the threatened southern California sea otter at the 10th Sea Otter Conservation Workshop. The international conference is held in the Seattle Aquarium and is the largest meeting of sea otter biologists in the world. Our findings reveal that genetic diversity is not increasing over time despite an increase in sea otter population size. In addition, we explore multiple estimators of the effective population size, which is estimate of the number of individuals in the population that are contributing genetically. Accurate estimates of effective population size are important because maintaining an effective population size of 500 is considered necessary for long term conservation and is a part of the criteria for delisting southern sea otters as a threatened species.

Read more about southern California sea otters:

sea otter holding a mussel

A sea otter using a tool to open a clam in the Elkhorn Slough, CA. Photo by Jessica Fujii.

Our paper investigating tool-use by sea otters, published in Biology Letters!

Our new paper investigating tool-use by sea otters, lead by our collaborator Katherine Ralls, has been published in Biology Letters! The evolutionary and ecological roots of tool-use vary greatly across taxa. Within marine mammals, the best examples of tool-use are sea otters and Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins. In both species, tool-use is not implemented by all individuals even within a population. Genetic analyses of the bottlenose dolphins revealed that tool-use was related to a single matriline (mother to offspring lineage) and that tool-use transmission is likely cultural (where individuals learn tool-use by observing other members of their group). In sea otters, however, we found no association between relatedness or mitochondrial haplotypes with tool-use. Instead, our work suggests a predisposition of all sea otters to use tools when faced with certain ecological conditions.

News stories:

trout being measured

New Project in Lab: Cutthroat Trout Genomics

Sierra Love Stowell received a contract from the United States Fish & Wildlife Service to genotype 190 greenback cutthroat trout at the Leadville National Fish Hatchery in Colorado. The genotypes will be used to calculate relatedness, which will then be used to choose parents in controlled matings. The goal is to maximize genetic diversity by mating unrelated individuals and ensure the sustainability of the broodstock in the hatchery and the success of reintroductions into the native range.

Learn more about Sierra:

hummingbird, mtn lion, owl, and bighorn sheep

Four members of our lab awarded new grants!

Brady Godwin (studying hummingbirds) and Beth Mendelsohn (studying Great Gray Owls) have recently been awarded the Raynes Wildlife Grant. Learn more about the grant at

Sierra Love Stowell recently received the national Wild Sheep Foundation grant to further study bighorn sheep translocation genomics. Learn more about the grant at

Erin Bentley, working on a National Science Foundation (NSF) mountain lion project to develop video games for educational outreach, recently received a grant from the NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU). Learn more about the grant at

Learn more about our lab members:
Learn more about our lab’s research projects: 

Science Olympiad logo

Beth Mendelsohn, Melanie LaCava, and Brady Godwin volunteer to be supervisors for the Science Olympiad

Beth, Melanie, and Brady are creating the ecology test for the Wyoming Science Olympiad state competition, to be held in Casper, Wyoming on March 25th. The hour-long test will be comprised of interactive, hands-on questions about basic ecology principles, terrestrial ecosystems, and human impacts on ecosystems. Students form clubs and spend months studying and preparing for a wide scope of topics, including Food Science, Microbe Mission, Optics, Robot Arm, Wind Power, Astronomy, Electric Vehicle and many more. The top team from the state competition advances to the National tournament. Participants learn the important skills of team work and group learning. There are also prestigious awards and scholarships associated with the Science Olympiad.

More about Science Olympiad: and

pronghorn in field

The Wildlife Society recently published an article on our pronghorn migration genomic research

Melanie LaCava, along with Holly Ernest, are studying the genetics of pronghorn populations and their movements across Wyoming. The Wildlife Society article explains: “We know that highways are definitely barriers for seasonal movements. What I’m hoping do is provide information on whether they’re also acting as a genetic barrier,” LaCava said. “There have been two [wildlife highway overpasses] built in Wyoming recently and they’re looking to build more. What I’m hoping to provide is an extra layer of information to help inform decisions like that.”

Read the article: more about our pronghorn research:

pronghorn next to fence

Melanie LaCava’s research on pronghorn populations is featured in this month’s AG News Magazine.

Melanie, along with her advisor Holly Ernest, are using next-generation genome sequencing tools and big data techniques to correlate the genetics of pronghorn populations and individuals with their movements across Wyoming. Working with the Wyoming Game & Fish Department and the Wyoming State Vet Lab, they’ve amassed over a thousand samples to establish a baseline for future genetic monitoring, to quantify genetic diversity, and to identify major barriers (like features in the landscape) to gene flow.

Read the full article:
Learn more about our pronghorn research:

Erin Bentley next to elephant

Video gaming for conservation science

Erin Bentley, an intern in our lab, will be helping to create video games for educational outreach on our NSF mountain lion project. Working with Dr. Kevin Crooks (Professor, Colorado State University), and Dr. Jeff Tracey (US Geological Survey Wildlife Biologist), Erin will be exploring the connection between science education and video gaming, which will help engage new groups of people to conservation and teach the public about mountain lion population health and ecology. She brings her experience working with Dr. Rachel Watson, a UW faculty member, helping students struggling with their micro-biology courses through video gaming.

hummingbird and pronghorn

B. Godwin & M. LaCava receive INBRE grants for hummingbirds & pronghorn genomics

Two of our lab members just received new INBRE (IDeA Networks for Biomedical Research Excellence) grants to further study genomics! Brady Godwin studies hummingbird landscape genetics, population genomics and ecology; Melanie LaCava studies landscape genetics and migration genomics of pronghorn.

Learn more about:

Millie Vazquez holding frog

Millie with Northern Leopard Frog

Welcome Amelia (Millie) Vazquez, MS, to our lab as wildlife genomics technician!

We’ve hired Amelia (Millie) Vazquez to be the full-time wildlife genomics technician for our lab! Amelia holds a Masters degree in Zoology, with a graduate certificate in Interdisciplinary Toxicology, from Oklahoma State University, and has experience in wildlife fieldwork and wildlife genetics. She’ll be initially focusing on analyzing samples for our three-year bear grant study, and also working on all other projects in the lab including Mule Deer landscape genomics and disease studies.

Mule Deer Buck

Species feature: Mule Deer

Our lab is investigating Wyoming Mule Deer population genomics and chronic wasting disease susceptibility genetics, the first comprehensive statewide analysis of its type. Answering questions about how disease, genetic diversity, migration movements, and land development in Wyoming all interact to impact Mule Deer population health and numbers are more important to address than ever with their recent population declines. Providing such an analysis will allow wildlife agencies, including the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish, to better manage and conserve mule deer for the future.

View more about Mule Deer:

loreto holding a hummingbird

Dr. Loreto Godoy, examining Anna’s hummingbirds in California, March 2011

Loreto Godoy scholarship awarded to present-day wildlife heroes

Present-day wildlife heroes receive recognition and funding through a memorial fund endowed to remember a wildlife hero, creative scientist, wildlife veterinarian, proud Chilean, and beacon of sunshine, Loreto Godoy. Read about this year’s recipient, Esther Kukielka, along with Robin and Cristin, recipients of previous years, at:

Melanie LaCava presenting pronghorn poster

LaCava wins Top PhD Student Poster Award

Melanie LaCava won the Top PhD Student Poster Award at The Wildlife Society national conference last week! Her poster, titled “Development of population genomic tools for pronghorn conservation and management”, covers her and Holly Ernest’s genetic research on Wyoming pronghorn and how they’re affected by landscape features (both natural and man-made).

Learn more about Melanie:
Learn more about our pronghorn research:
Learn more about the conference:

Female Mountain Lion in forest

Female Mountain Lion; photo by Winston Vickers

Ernest’s 20-year research featured in UW’s Reflection Magazine

Holly Ernest’s research on mountain lions over the last 20 years is currently featured in UW’s Reflection Magazine. She and her team of students and collaborators provided important new insights into the ecology, genetics, and health of mountain lion populations. Previous to these studies, some wildlife professionals assumed mountain lions were broadly interbreeding, that there would not be much structure to their populations, and that western mountain lions would have healthy levels of genetic diversity. DNA evidence has proven this is not the case in California.

Read the full article
Learn more about mountain lion research

TWS Conference

Three lab members will be presenting at The Wildlife Society Conference in Raleigh this week:

Mother and Child Black Bear

Lab receives new funding for 3-year study of black bear populations

Kyle Gustafson and Holly Ernest are studying the DNA and population of black bears, funded with a new three-year grant. Working with wildlife agencies to collect and analyze the hair samples of these bears, they study DNA mark recapture (how many times the same bears – versus new bears – are recaptured in the same location, based on DNA samples). Using this data, they can statistically determine the population of bears in a given area.  Currently, they’ll be looking at bears in the Eastern Sierra Nevada range, along with the mountain ranges around LA.

Read more:

mother Southern Sea Otter with baby

California sea otter genetic research presented at Wildlife Disease Assoc. conference

Holly Ernest presented her and Erick Gagne’s research on the endangered southern California sea otter at the Wildlife Disease Association’s 2016 conference in Cornell University. Their research shows that the genetic diversity of these sea otters has stayed low and static over the last ten years.

Low genetic (DNA) diversity has adverse effects on populations, like the sea otters near Monterey Bay, limiting their ability to fight disease, climate change, predators, and more. Genetic variation within a population results in differences in how individuals can adapt and survive. This provides the variable raw material to allow populations to evolve in the face of novel threats. For example, if a population’s immune system is limited (low genetic diversity of immune system) to fighting only specific viruses, then one new disease could potentially eliminate most or all of the animals. In contrast, if individuals within the population have a variable immune system, they may be well-equipped to fight off the new disease.

In the past before the mid-1800’s fur trade era, sea otters used to inhabit almost the entire Pacific coast – from Mexico, to Alaska, the Bering Strait, down to Japan. Now fragmented, the population in California is isolated from breeding from other genetically diverse populations. California sea otters today suffer from an onslaught of disease threats and loss of their marine kelp habitat.

Read more about southern California sea otters:

Melanie LaCava presenting pronghorn poster

Melanie LaCava attends pronghorn workshop in Montana, presents poster

Graduate student Melanie LaCava attended the Biennial Western States and Provinces Pronghorn Workshop in Montana last week. She presented a poster with preliminary pronghorn population genomics data and networked with pronghorn researchers and managers from across western North America.

Read more about Melanie: more about pronghorn:

Snowy Owl
Beth studying Snowy Owls

Beth studied Snowy Owl nests in the arctic this summer, found one of lowest breeding years in 25 years

Beth Mendelsohn just returned from Barrow, Alaska, the most northern portion of Alaska, looking for Snowy Owl nests along the Arctic Ocean. She assisted in research that showed that the Snowy Owls in this arctic region had one of the lowest breeding years in 25 years. Read more about Snowy Owls in the arctic at the Owl Research Institute, which funded her summer’s work. Beth, a new Masters student in the Ernest lab, will be studying the genetic population of Great Grey Owls in the Rocky Mountains.

Read more:

Kitten siblings P-46 and P-47

Paper w/ Ernest lab genetic data shows small carnivore population likely to go extinct near major city

A new paper out by UCLA postdoc John Benson, Holly Ernest, and coauthors has recently been published, showing that demographic, genetic and landscape interactions increase extinction probability in a small population of large carnivores in a major metropolitan area. The Ernest lab provided the genetic data. This new research has been covered in the LA times and more.

Read more:

Hummingbird migration of Penny

We’ve followed Penny, a broad-tailed hummingbird, the last two summers

We’ve banded and followed Penny, a broad-tailed hummingbird, over the last two summers in Wyoming – and she migrated to southern Mexico in the interim! Holly Ernest and Brady Godwin banded Penny as a young hummingbird in late August last year near Fox Park, Wyoming. A year later, they were able to study her again in June, in the same location, where she’s likely returned to nest and reproduce. Hummingbirds like Penny make an incredible 4000 mile round-trip migration through a gauntlet of obstacles – dogs and cats (some of their main predators), glass windows on high-rise buildings, pesticides, cars, and exhaustion – eventually reaching southern Mexico, in the area of Oaxaca and surrounding Mexican states. They pack up to 1.8 grams of fat under their chins (gaining ~50% of their normal body weight) to make the 2-month journey. Both Penny’s winter and summer habitat are high elevations with open woodland and flowering shrubs – and sometimes, when returning to Wyoming in the late Spring, even sees snow!

Read more about hummingbirds and our research:

Kyle Gustafson with conference group

Lab member Kyle Gustafson attends spatially-explicit capture-recapture workshop

A fundamental question in wildlife conservation is “What is the population size?” Although counting individuals seems simple, estimating population size is extremely complex. Wildlife populations that we study are not limited to a single location, and a better question might be “What is the population density and how does it change among locations?” To learn the techniques required to answer this question, Dr. Kyle Gustafson attended a Spatially-explicit capture–recapture modeling workshop at the University of Georgia, led by Andy Royle and Richard Chandler.

Read more about our research on mountain lion populations and genetics.

Wildlife Genomics workflow showing wildlife samples, DNA extraction, analysis, and reports

Using samples from wildlife to extract and analyze DNA

We are using tissue, blood, horn, hair, and even fecal samples from wildlife populations to extract DNA and analyze genetic information to learn about population history, health, and dynamics. We’re then sharing that information with stakeholders in wildlife conservation, from citizens to state and federal wildlife agencies, so that they can make informed decisions about wildlife management.

Read more about wildlife genomics at:

disease ecology: pollution, human movement, climate change, barriers, and domestic animal

Preventing disease outbreaks for conservation and human health

Our lab is using genomic (DNA) approaches in mountain lions and bighorn sheep to address important questions in disease ecology. Disease occurrence and the severity of disease outbreaks are increasing in wildlife; preventing these outbreaks is becoming recognized as an important component of wildlife conservation and human health.

Read more about disease ecology at:

Wildlife Genetic Health Lab logo

Now Hiring a Lab Technician!

We have an open technician position to assist in laboratory research in wildlife population genetics, genomics and disease ecology at the University of Wyoming (UW) in Laramie. Assisting in research involves use of genomic and genetic DNA analysis and disease diagnostic data to examine population health, genetic diversity, and ecology of wildlife species. The position is primarily laboratory based and involves many and varied tasks.

Applications will be reviewed immediately and desired start date is as soon as possible starting Sept 1, 2016. Full job listing is at UWyo job site,

Migration genomics map illustration

Population genomics to study ungulate migrations

Our lab is using population genomics to study Wyoming ungulate migrations. After determining whether individual animals are migratory or non-migratory using GPS tracking data, we can investigate genetic differences between these two groups. To learn more about our pronghorn migration genomics project, see our pronghorn research page:

Learn more about population genomics:

Landscape Genetics chart

Mountain lion landscape genetics research with major focus in California:

As mountain lion landscape geneticists we are using genetics to understand how the landscape affects the abundances and distributions of mountain lion populations across broad spatial areas, with major focus on California. Our research has important management implications for mountain lion conservation as well as implications for public safety.

Read more about landscape genetics:
Read more about our mountain lion research:
Read more about Kyle:

Owl: photo by Joe Medley

Lab to begin studying conservation genetics & population health of great gray owls

Beth Mendelsohn will join our lab in the Fall as a masters-level student to begin studying the conservation genetics and population health of the Great Gray Owl in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Read more about great grey owls:

Read more about Beth:

hummingbird under magnifying glass

Lab member is “Habitat Hero”: Brady Godwin guest blogs for Rockies Audubon about hummingbirds, looks for feeders to band at

Brady Godwin, PhD student in our lab, guest blogs for Rockies Audubon about hummingbird populations and genetics, and looks for volunteers to allow banding at feeders. Once we begin to answer some basic questions about hummingbird populations, we will really begin to know what’s going on with those wonderful little birds hovering by your windows!

Read more at:

Read the article at:

feral pigs in grass


Working with the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) wildlife genetics unit Dr.Toni Piaggio and Dr. Michael Tabac, our lab is studying the ecology of feral pig populations in California.  Feral pigs, also called wild boars, or feral hogs, are very environmentally destructive, basically rototilling up whole hillsides and destroying native grasses and other plants.  Our study specifically uses population genetic and ecological data to determine breeding structures of pigs, how populations of pigs are grouped across the landscape, and what important social factors are associated with human-assisted movement of feral pigs. This information will be used to better understand the lifestyle of these unique and invasive animals as well as how to manage feral pig populations and the diseases they can spread to livestock, wildlife, and people.

Read more at:

Erin Bentley in lab

Erin labeling a tube of bighorn sheep DNA

Erin Bentley, Wildlife Genomics Intern

Wildlife genomics intern Erin Bentley is working on state-wide Wyoming bighorn sheep and mule deer population genomics with postdocs Erick Gagne and Sierra Love Stowell. This work will contribute to improved conservation and management measures for these very important species.

Learn about Erin
View our mule deer research

pronghorn in snowy grass

Melanie LaCava and Holly Ernest invited to University of Idaho

PhD student Melanie LaCava and Holly Ernest were recently invited to speak at the University of Idaho. They covered the genomics and diseases of pronghorn and bighorn sheep, and will start to collaborate with researchers there to better study these animals.

Read more about pronghorn
Read more about bighorn sheep

sea otter floating in water

Sea otter primer note has been published in Conservation Genetic Resources

Lydia Lam, former veterinary student, Erick Gagne, post-doc, and Holly Ernest have developed 24 novel polymorphic microsatellite loci for the Southern sea otter, Enhydra lutris nereis. The work has been published in this month’s issue of Conservation Genetic Resources doi:10. 1007/ s12686-016-0522-2

Brady holding up a net gently removing a hummingbird

Brady gently removing hummingbird from trap for health exam

Brady Godwin, PhD student, studies hummingbird health across Wyoming and Colorado:

  • Brady recently received a Kelly Ornithology grant to further study the health of hummingbirds in Wyoming and Colorado, specifically looking at population genomics and heavy metal exposure of this sentinel species.
  • The Laramie Boomerang recently featured Brady & Holly, covering how they sample, band, and find locations in Wyoming and Colorado to better understand hummingbird health.

More at:
Read the full Boomerang article at:

Melanie giving a presentation

Educational Outreach with doctoral researcher Melanie LaCava

Doctoral researcher Melanie LaCava taught over 80 Laramie High School Biology students in Kim Burkhart’s classroom about pronghorn ecology and genetics, and walked them through an adaptations activity, exploring how they’ve evolved to escape/avoid predators. Download the educational resources for this lesson.

circle with icons of animals and dna

Lab welcomes two new post-doc researchers focusing on:

  • Sierra: Next generation genome sequencing tools to assess genomic diversity of Wyoming bighorn sheep
  • Kyle: Mountain lion population genomics, landscape genetics, and molecular mark recapture

More at:

sea otter with mouth open


Together with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care & Research Center we are working to develop a large and informative suite of genetic markers to help track the transmission of disease through the otter populations of California. Learn more

Bighorn Sheep in snow


Our lab is currently generating data for a comprehensive state-wide genetic assessment of Wyoming’s bighorn sheep herds. These data and findings will form a foundation with which wildlife agencies, including Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD), can monitor the genetic health of Wyoming’s herds into the future. The research will also assist and partner with studies to evaluate why certain bighorn sheep herds have severe disease problems and others do not.  Also included in our analyses will be genetic comparisons with our Desert Bighorn Sheep genetics data. Learn more

moutnain lion and cubs

Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Disease in mountain lions project

We are busy extracting and analyzing DNA for genomic analysis of southern California mountain lions. This work is part of a National Science Foundation funded Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Disease project with Colorado State University. The aims of the project are to combine host animal and viral genomic information to determine disease spread among different mountain lion populations across the United States. The findings of this work will inform management of mountain lions to protect against outbreaks of infectious diseases. Learn more

Disease Ecology course logo

New Disease Ecology Course Spring 2016, taught at University of Wyoming by Holly Ernest.

This course will help students build knowledge, critical thinking skills, and tools for applying the interdisciplinary science of Disease Ecology in:

  • How interactions among species, ecosystems, human systems, and abiotic components of the environment affect patterns and processes of disease,
  • Considerations for coevolution of hosts and pathogens, conservation biology, models used to understand disease dynamics,
  • Approaches to manage and control disease in animals, plants, and humans

Course #: PATB 4240 (undergraduate) co-listed with PATB 5240 (Graduate Students)
Day and Time: Tuesdays and Thursdays 2:45-4pm
More at:

Wildlife Genetic Health Lab logo

Our lab is now hiring! We’re looking to fill two postdoctoral research positions:

Sep 25, 2015: 

A post-doctoral research position (Postdoc; position #4712”) is available to work on wildlife population genomics and serve as laboratory manager at the University of Wyoming (UW) in Laramie. The position will be primarily lab-based within the Ernest Wildlife Genomics and Disease Ecology Laboratory in the Department of Veterinary Sciences which has affiliations with the UW Program in Ecology and the University of California, Davis Wildlife Health Center. Research will use genomic (next gen sequencing) and genetic (microsatellite) to examine landscape-level genetic diversity, population structure, and phylogeography of wildlife species in the Rocky Mountain West and California. Species of focus will mainly involve bighorn sheep, and also contribute to work on pronghorn, mountain lion, hummingbird, sea otter and other species. Research work may also involve wildlife disease ecology.

A post-doctoral research position (Postdoc; position #4740”) is available to work on wildlife landscape genetics and population genetics at the University of Wyoming (UW) in Laramie. The position will be primarily lab-based within the Ernest Wildlife Genomics and Disease Ecology Laboratory in the Department of Veterinary Sciences which has affiliations with the UW Program in Ecology and the University of California, Davis Wildlife Health Center. Research will use genetic (microsatellite) and genomic (next gen sequencing) DNA data (including non/less-invasive sampling, such as fecal samples), GIS analysis, and quantitative analytic analysis using spatially explicit capture–recapture and other models, and software such as MARK, SECR, CAPWIRE, and others to examine population ecology, relatedness, and estimate population sizes of wildlife species in the Rocky Mountain West and California. Species of focus will mainly involve mountain lions, and also contribute to work on pronghorn, bighorn sheep, hummingbirds and other species.

Details and application information: Postdoc Wildlife Landscape Genetics Position 4740

University of Wyoming combines major-university benefits and small-school advantages, offering 200 programs of study, an outstanding faculty, and world-class research and teaching facilities, all set against the backdrop of Wyoming’s beautiful landscapes. The main campus is in Laramie, a community of approximately 31,000 sandwiched between the Medicine Bow and Laramie mountain ranges two hours north of Denver.
pronghorn eating grass in field

pronghorn project pushes forward

Sep 8, 2015: Melanie LaCava, Holly Ernest, and team at University of Wyoming are examining the genomic health of pronghorn herds throughout the state of Wyoming. Migration Genomics: we use landscape genetics and genomic tools to study these unique migratory ungulates as well as migratory birds. This work is vitally important for this emblematic Sage Brush species, with most of the world’s population living in Wyoming and existing as the only remaining member of its taxonomic family.  Learn more about the project

thumbnail of wyoming game and fish newsletter

UW Hummingbird health program takes flight in Wyoming and Colorado

Sep 2, 2015: The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has been working with UW’s Dr. Holly Ernest and PhD student Braden Godwin on the Hummingbird Health Project this summer. Read the full article by Mark Gocke here and feature article in Wyoming Wildlife Magazine here.

lab members posing on UW campus

Welcome to the lab

Aug 10, 2015: Braden Godwin (PhD student, hummingbird project), Erick Gagne (Postdoctoral Researcher, mountain lion project), Melanie Lacava (PhD student, pronghorn project), and Giulia Vernati (managing our lab, bighorn sheep project, and assisting with all lab projects) – joining Holly Ernest (DVM, PhD, Professor) in support of our mission to enhance wildlife conservation, population health, & management.

Mountain lion - Photo Credit CDFG

species of the week: mountain lions

July 23, 2015: Our lab is focusing on wild ruminants, carnivores, & birds, with special attention currently on mountain lions, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, and hummingbirds. Species of the week to check out: mountain lions

website screenshot

lab officially up and running

July 8, 2015: Our lab is officially up and running!  We’re enhancing wildlife conservation, population health, & management in the disciplines of genomics, landscape genetics, and disease ecology. Explore our website to learn more.