Deacon Profile: David Anderson

David Anderson serves as a professor in the department of Biology. His interests within the biological field lie in behavioral and evolutionary ecology, avian iblicide, evolution of reproductive rates, sex allocation and conservation biology in the Galápagos Islands.

Anderson received his undergraduate degree from Denison University. He then received his Master’s degree from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania.

Clare Stanton/Old Gold & Black

How long have you taught at Wake Forest?

This is the end of my 20th year.  I’m almost to the point of having been here for the entire lives of the students in my classes, which is a perspective-changer for me.

What brought you to Wake Forest?

A job offer!

Actually, I always hoped to get a position either in the Pacific Northwest or North Carolina, for their respective climates, and in the case of N.C. because I’m a basketball fan. And WFU was exactly the kind of place that I wanted, combining a vibrant undergraduate training mission with robust research capabilities.

Something funny happened during my job search.  I had applied to a number of places, including Wake, and got a call from Lake Forest College, but I understood the call to be from Wake…

We were 10 minutes into the phone interview, with me saying how excited I was to be hearing from them, before we all realized that what I was excited about was WAKE Forest. That was awkward.

What is your favorite class to teach? Why?

I don’t think that I can choose among my children.  My Birds class is fun because I love the material and we bomb around Florida over spring break collecting sightings.

My BIO 113 class Ecology and Evolution class is larger and has mostly students just beginning their careers, and I feel that I can have a formative influence on the way that they analyze problems using the scientific method.  And my FYS on the Galapagos Islands engages all of the students without exception, which is rewarding.

Are you currently doing any research? If so what is the subject you are researching?

Since 1982, I have been studying a population of seabirds called boobies in the Galapagos Islands.  I get a lot of mileage out of the name of the birds; I have tons of material about handling boobies, don’t get me started. Ok, if you insist: I’ve certainly handled more boobies than anyone else in the history of humankind, in the vicinity of 100,000.  That’s a lot of boobies.

My students and I live on an uninhabited island where our birds are, and each one is recognizable by a numbered leg band.  Each year we see what each bird is up to, is it alive, is it breeding, what’s its behavior like.

We have discovered some amazing things.  For one, these birds have a form of “child” abuse, in which adult birds bother unrelated nestlings, sometimes beating them up, sometimes forcing sex on them.

The victimized nestlings then grow up, and are much more likely to perform these behaviors as adults.  As in humans, abuse begets abuse in a cycle of violence.

This is the only non-human animal in which a cycle of violence has been found outside contrived captive situations. Another that is breaking news is evidence for a new model of yawning.  Yawning happens in lots of animals, but the reason that it happens really isn’t understood.  We think that it is a response to stress.

Mostly what we do is test hypotheses about the evolution of life histories.  We want to understand how natural selection molds the amount of effort an organism puts into parental care and into protecting itself with an immune system. We use miniature GPS loggers to study their movements at sea, and we’re interested in variation in their personalities (seriously) and how selection acts on that.

What are some of your favorite things to do outside of your academic work?

My family and I have retrofitted our house to make it as environmentally sustainable as possible.Our front yard is mostly a vegetable garden, and we capture our roof’s rain drainage in cisterns and water the garden only with that.

We get our hot water from solar collectors on the roof.  And we use a geothermal heat pump to heat and cool the house.  Any project involving power tools, I’m good to go.

Where is the most interesting place you’ve traveled? Why?

Probably Galapagos. I’ve travelled there 50-plus times, and I guess that I keep going because it gets more and more fascinating each time.

A big plus for a biologist is that the animals tolerate close human presence, so you can find out so much more about them than is the case for most other places.

What advice would you give to a senior who came to you with concerns about entering the “real world”?

Come to me earlier next time, so that I can make sure that you take your college years seriously from the get-go.

I’m sure underclasspersons must read this paper!

If you’re a senior, consider the real world exciting.

It is full of challenges and opportunities, and you will have some combination of successes and failures.

If fear of failure governs your choices, you’ll probably have a pedestrian life. Put your shoulders back and chin up and live an intentional life, embracing challenge.

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