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Last modified: Thursday, March 30, 2006

Ellen D. Ketterson

Distinguished Professor

Ellen Ketterson Founders Day image

Ellen Ketterson

Print-Quality Photo

Department of Biology
Department of Gender Studies
College of Arts and Sciences
University Graduate School
Indiana University Bloomington
Appointed to IU faculty, 1977
A.B., Indiana University, 1966
M.A., Indiana University, 1968
Ph.D., Indiana University, 1974

Ellen Ketterson is an internationally known evolutionary biologist who specializes in animal behavior and is among the top three researchers in her field in the world.

Ketterson has made several discoveries that have put her at the forefront of evolutionary biology. Key to her work has been a twenty-year population study of a songbird known as the 'snowbird' or dark-eyed junco.

"Long-term studies are essential if we are to understand evolutionary dynamics in natural populations; Dr. Ketterson's work is close to being unique in that it couples results from long-term study with experimental manipulation," says Trevor Price, professor of biology at the University of Chicago. Ketterson's recent research on the junco system is "perhaps the model study of the way in which links between physiology and fitness are being made in natural populations," Price says.

Ketterson's research has focused on the effects of the hormone testosterone on the behavior of male songbirds. She captures juncos, administers testosterone, and immediately releases the birds back on their home territories. She finds that testosterone increases aggression, reduces paternal care, and causes more singing. The testosterone-treated males are also preferred by females in mate choice tests and are more successful at mating outside the pair bond. The purpose of these studies is to determine the cost of increasing the hormones that govern male behavior in order to understand how hormones and behavior are maintained by evolution. More testosterone might increase matings outside the pair bond, but at what cost? One possible cost is lifespan and testosterone-treated males have shorter life spans. Another cost could manifest itself in females, and Ketterson's group is currently study effects of testosterone on females, including aggression and susceptibility to disease and stress.

"Her outstanding experimental work in the laboratory and field using 'phenotypic engineering' has allowed us to think more effectively, creatively, and broadly in organismal biology," says John C. Winfield, professor and chair of zoology at the University of Washington. "Her work on testosterone manipulations in birds has cemented the emerging idea that hormone secretion may indeed have evolutionary costs. Ellen's work is the driving force behind this conceptual advance."

Ketterson, who co-founded the Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior at IU, was elected a fellow and vice president of the American Ornithologist's Union (in 1988 and 1996, respectively) and fellow of the Animal Behavior Society (1994). She has served as editor or associate editor of all of the major journals in evolutionary biology, behavioral ecology, and avian biology, and has received numerous awards. Most significant of these are the Elliot Coues Award in 1996, given for extraordinary contributions; the Margaret Morse Nice medal, which she won jointly with husband and collaborator Val Nolan, to honor a lifetime of contributions to ornithology; and the Animal Behavior Society's Exemplar Award in 2003.

In 2004, she was named a John Simon Guggenheim fellow. During her Guggenheim fellowship, Ketterson visited sites across North and Central America to study plumage variation in juncos in order to relate micro-evolutionary processes to sexual differentiation.

In 2004, Ketterson was appointed a professor in IU's newly founded Department of Gender Studies. She is also Chair of the Board of Governors of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction. Despite her busy schedule, Ketterson places a high value on her interactions with students, many of whom have followed in her footsteps.

"She has been instrumental in the education of many fine young scientists, and she has been essential in building a group of evolutionary biologists that ranks in the minds of many—probably most—evolutionists as the very best in the world," says professor of biology Curtis Lively.

Daniel Cristol, now an associate professor of biology at the College of William and Mary, was profoundly influenced by Ketterson when he was a student at IU Bloomington. "I was a nightmare student who arrived with an untrammeled ego, a desire to save the planet in just a few years, and no idea of what he wanted to study, or even what it means to study something," he says.

"Over just two years, I was completely seduced by the intellectual beauty of Ellen's approach to science. She provided an example of a scientist practicing the most powerful kind of science, and for the purest reasons—accumulation of an accurate understanding of how one part of nature works."

Elizabeth C. Raff, IU professor and chair of biology, sums it up nicely.

"Professor Ketterson's innovation and insight in her research has transformed our understanding of the biological and evolutionary basis for behavior," she says of her colleague. "Along with her path-breaking work as a scientist, she has also had a major role in building excellence in this area at IU."