Natasha Gownaris

Post Doctoral Research Scientist 

I graduated from Gettysburg College, where I double majored in Biology and Environmental Studies and conducted research on mussel bed formation, in 2009. As a graduate student, I worked under Dr. Ellen Pikitch at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. My PhD focused on the influence of hydrological change due to upstream development on the food web and fisheries of Lake Turkana, Kenya. I completed my PhD in December 2015. While a graduate student, I was also involved in a number of other projects – including working with the Lenfest Forage Fish Task force and Seafood Watch – and taught several courses. In addition to my position with the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels, I am currently the lead GIS analyst for the 10×20 Initiative, which provides scientific support for the Sustainable Development Goal 14, Target 5 to preserve 10% of the oceans by 2020. Please see my CV for more background information.

Scientific Interests
Ecosystems are infinitely complex at increasingly small scales, so to make ecological questions approachable biologists must limit the variability they consider. My research experience over the past decade has been diverse. Yet, one common thread has consistently captivated me: the important role that variability plays in ecology. I have become particularly interested in intra-specific variability in foraging and demography and the implications of this variability for conservation. In the past, I have approached questions on variability through the lens of fish communities – I am a newcomer to the seabird community, but fish play a central role in seabird ecology.

One simplification often made by ecologists, particularly those working at high levels of biological organization, is that all individuals in a population behave similarly. As part of my dissertation research on the fish communities of Lake Turkana, Kenya, I used stable isotope analysis to quantify intra-specific diet variability at two levels: 1) inter-individual, 2) intra-individual over different temporal scales. The dietary niche size of the lake’s fishes varied by orders of magnitude, with implications for their response to impending upstream hydrological development. I also examined how variability in water levels influences food web structure, including the relative occurrence of generalist vs. specialist species, and productivity across African lakes. As an offshoot of my dissertation work, I collaborated with a team of fellow graduate students to write a concept paper on the often-ignored relationship between animal personality and intra-specific diet variation.

My first project as a post-doctoral researcher with Ecosystem Sentinels focused on variation in the survival of the sexes. Using over 30 years of banding data, I developed a Hidden-Markov multistate mark-recapture model for the Magellanic penguins of Punta Tombo that allowed survival to vary by time, age, and sex. I found female survival to be considerably lower than male survival during over-wintering periods, supporting what we see at the colony: an increasingly skewed sex ratio, more single males, and fewer breeding pairs. Lower female survival is likely driven by their smaller size, which leads to less favorable energetics and foraging behaviors when resources are low. The findings of this study stress the importance of including inter-sexual variability in demographic models and of better understanding how male and female seabirds differ in their response to changes in food availability.

I am currently using 35 years of data on known-aged Magellanic penguin chicks to study how they grow. The richness of the Penguin project dataset, which includes detailed natural history information in addition to measurement data, provides a perfect opportunity to test the adaptive growth hypothesis and other questions related to natural selection. To do so, I am studying how selective pressures shape the trajectory of chick growth (skeletal features and mass) using allometry and dynamic programming. This study will provide baseline information on which to expand. Next, I plan to ask questions regarding how variable chick growth patterns are at the individual level, particularly in response to food availability. Over 90% of Punta Tombo’s Magellanic penguins die as chicks or juveniles, and starvation is the major cause of mortality in both of these age classes, so better understanding patterns of growth in the face of resource variability is important to the conservation of this species.

Other Interests
In addition to my research interests, I am passionate about science education and outreach. I have sought out as many opportunities as possible to become a better science educator, including teaching classes of different sizes and academic levels and taking courses focused on biology education. I am particularly interested in improving access to science education among underrepresented groups – while at Stony Brook University, I was an instructor for the women in science and engineering program and spearheaded efforts to have unwanted scientific equipment sent to schools in low-income regions. I also volunteer regularly for science outreach events and have published on graduate training in science communication.

I have a strong personal interest in birds of all shapes and sizes…penguins, my adopted parrots, the neighborhood crows. I also love to cook, read, hike, bike, and garden – anything that includes food, learning or the outdoors. I was raised in Queens so I am a New Yorker at heart, but absolutely love living at the “Center of the Known Universe” in the Pacific Northwest!

Gownaris, N.J. and P.D. Boersma. 2019. Sex-Biased Survival Contributes to Population Decline in a Long-Lived Seabird, the Magellanic Penguin. Ecological Applications 29(1). DOI: 10.1002/eap.1826.

Gownaris, N.J. and P.D. Boersma. Bachelor Birds: Why Seabird Demographic Models Should Consider Sex. Journal of Animal Ecology. In review.

Gownaris, N.J., K.J. Rountos, L. Kaufman, J. Kolding, K.M.M. Lwiza, and E.K. Pikitch. Water Level Fluctuations and the Ecosystem Functioning of African Lakes. In review.

Hundey, E.J., J.H. Olker, C. Carreira, R.M. Daigle, A.K. Elgin, M. Finiguerra, N.J. Gownaris, N. Hayes, L. Heffner, R. Razavi, P.D. Shirey, B.D. Tolar, E.M. Wood-Charlson. 2016. A Shifting Tide: Recommendations for Incorporating Science Communication into Graduate Training. Limnology and Oceanography Bulletin (25). DOI: 10.1002/lob.10151
*collaboration among graduate students/early career scientists

Ojwang, W.O., K.O. Obiero, O.O. Donde, N.J. Gownaris, E.K. Pikitch, R. Omondi, and S. Agembe. 2016. Lake Turkana, the World’s Largest Permanent Desert Lake. In Max Finlayson, Randy Milton and Crawford Prentice (Ed.) The Wetland Book: Distribution, Description and Conservation.

Gownaris, N.J., E.K Pikitch, J. Aller, L. Kaufman, J. Kolding, K. Lwiza, K. Obiero, W. Ojwang, J. Malala, and K. Rountos. 2016. Fisheries and Water Level Fluctuations in the World’s Largest Desert Lake. Ecohydrology. DOI: 10.1002/eco.1769

Toscano, B.J., N.J. Gownaris, S.M. Heerhartz, and C.J. Monaco. 2016. Personality, Foraging Behavior, and Specialization: Integrating Behavioral and Food Web Ecology at the Individual Level. Oecologia (182). DOI: 10.1007/s00442-016-3648-8.
*collaboration among graduate students/early career scientists

Commito, J.A., N.J. Gownaris, D.B. Haulsee, S.E. Coleman. 2016. Separation Anxiety: Mussels Self-Organize into Similar Power-Law Clusters Regardless of Predation Threat Cues. Marine Ecology Progress Series (547). DOI: 10.3354/meps11642.

Gownaris, N., E.K. Pikitch, W.O. Ojwang, R. Michener, and L. Kaufman. 2015. Predicting Species’ Vulnerability in a Massively Perturbed System: The Fishes of Lake Turkana, Kenya. PLOS ONE. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0127027.

Commito, J.A., A.E. Commito, R.V. Platt, B.M. Grupe, W.E. Dow, N.J. Gownaris, K.A. Reeves, and A.M. Vissichelli (2014). Recruitment Facilitation and Spatial Pattern Formation in Soft-Bottom Mussel Beds. Ecosphere (160). DOI: 10.1890/ES14-00200.1.

Pikitch, E.K., K.J. Rountos, T.E. Essington, C. Santora, D. Pauly, R. Watson, U.R. Sumaila, P.D. Boersma, I.L. Boyd, D.O. Conover, P. Cury, S.S. Heppell, E.D. Houde, M. Mangel, É Plagányi, K Sainsbury, R.S. Steneck, T.M. Geers, N.J. Gownaris, and S.B. Munch (2014). The Global Contribution of Forage Fish to Marine Fisheries and Ecosystems. Fish and Fisheries (15). DOI: 10.111/faf.12004.