Marissa Ahlering, PhD

Prairie Ecologist
The Nature Conservancy
University of North Dakota
Phone: 701-777-4598




Creighton University , Omaha, Neb. BS in Environmental Science, 2000
University of Missouri, Columbia, Mo. PhD in Biology, 2005


Research Interests

I am a grassland ecologist. The focus of my research has been on the influence of cues such as habitat, food resources, behavior, and weather on the habitat selection process for grassland birds. Birds are an excellent way to connect the different aspects of an ecosystem (e.g. habitat, invertebrate prey, vertebrate predators). I have recently expanded my research into the African savanna ecosystem in Kenya to examine some population genetics questions with savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana).

The inherent variability in grassland ecosystems causes most grassland species to exhibit low site fidelity and shift breeding locations annually. Therefore, the cues grassland birds use to establish territories play an important role in determining their annual geographic distribution. A playback experiment I conducted with Baird’s Sparrows (Ammodramus bairdii) during my dissertation indicated that at least some species of grassland birds may use other birds as a cue to establish territories, and I am interested in the potential mechanisms and consequences of this conspecific attraction on grassland bird populations.  Many of the ecological questions that interest me in this realm (i.e. mating strategies) can be augmented with the use of molecular genetic techniques.


Therefore, to develop my skills as a molecular ecologist and expand my perspective on grassland ecosystems, I recently began a research project using molecular techniques to examine the metapopulation dynamics of savanna elephants in the south rift valley of Kenya. Recent efforts by the Maasai in this region have allowed elephants to use areas have been excluded from for decades. My research uses non-invasive genetic and hormone tools to determine what local populations these elephants originated from and the genetic relationship and level of stress within the colonizers. An understanding of elephant dispersal is critical as conservation strategies focus on integrating humans and elephants.



Ahlering, M. A., D. H. Johnson and J. Faaborg. 2006.Conspecific attraction in a grassland bird, the Baird’s Sparrow. Journal of Field Ornithology 77: 365-371.

Ahlering, M. A. and J. Faaborg. 2006. Avian habitat management meets conspecific attraction: If you build it, will they come? Auk 123: 301-312.

Ahlering, M. A., D. H. Johnson and J. Faaborg. In review. Settlement cues for grasshopper and Baird’s sparrows in the upper Great Plains.

Ahlering, M. A. 2005. Settlement cues and resource use by grasshopper and Baird’s sparrows in the upper Great Plains. Ph.D. dissertation. University of Missouri, Columbia.