Carl Gerhardt to Be Honored at the 2014 ISBE Meeting
Male tree frogs are especially open and transparent on first dates. Their mating calls tell female tree frogs everything they need to know to make a good match. Carl Gerhardt, Curators’ Professor of Biological Sciences, who is also a Thomas Jefferson Award recipient, has devoted much of his career to listening to these calls. Gerhardt will be honored for his outstanding contributions to the scientific study of acoustic communication using frogs as model systems at the 2014 International Society for Behavioral Ecology (ISBE) meeting this summer.
Gerhardt’s obsession with tree frogs began when he studied evolutionary biology at the University of Georgia and the University of Texas at Austin. He later became interested in neuroethology during his time at Cornell University as a postdoctoral research associate. Gerhardt joined the MU faculty in 1971 and since then, he has been using behavioral approaches to address both evolutionary and neuroethological questions. “Identifying basic acoustic properties shared by all males of a species gives researchers studying the auditory system some expectations for auditory neurons or networks that selectively respond to acoustic features of known biological significance in mate choice,” says Gerhardt.
At the individual competition, Gerhardt’s research team discovered that female grey tree frogs prefer mating calls that are the most energetically expensive for male frogs to produce, which thereby may be assuring that the male they choose to mate with is in good physical condition. Genetic benefits for offspring are also likely. “Our studies show that the sperm from males who make these attractive calls produce tadpoles that grow faster and stronger than the tadpoles produced from less-desirable male frogs,” says Gerhardt.
Gerhardt has more than 125 science publications, including six in Science and two in Nature. His writing achievements include a monograph, Acoustic Communication in Insects and Frogs: Common Problems and Diverse Solutions, and a popular natural history book called Frogs and Toads of North America: A Comprehensive Guide to their Identification, Behavior and Calls.
Not only has Gerhardt’s research impacted the field of evolution and mechanisms of animal communication, but his exceptional teaching has created a long line of successful scientists around the world. For Gerhardt, that is the most meaningful part of his research. “One of the highlights of my career is being able to work with outstanding collaborators and students; I’ve had wonderful graduate students and great postdocs from around the world—from France and Germany, to Australia and South Korea,” says Gerhardt. “I have a lot of potentially good ideas but sometimes ideas are cheap compared to all the work that it takes to do the experiments that can test those ideas in a robust way.”
The ISBE meeting will take place take place July 31 through Aug. 6 in New York City. Gerhardt knows the other honorees quite well, and he is looking forward to the upcoming research presentations. “This is the best kind of award because I don’t have to speak,” Gerhardt says. He just needs to listen—a skill Gerhardt has refined.