Meet Marie L. Muñiz, an undergrad UNT ecology major working in Dr. Elinor Lichtenberg's Animal-Plant Interactions Laboratory here on campus. The lab combines ecology and animal behavior to study plant-animal interactions, insect foraging, and insect biodiversity. They work at the interface of basic and applied science to help conserve and restore functional ecosystems, while providing fundamental understanding of the processes underlying and outcomes of interactions both within and among species.
Marie's research focuses on the foraging behavior of bumblebees. While bumblebees' use of social information from fellow bees has been widely explored, bees are not the only insects visiting flowers, and Marie's honors thesis research aims to explore how bumblebees use social information from a multitude of flower-visiting insects.
"Bumblebees are exposed to a wide array of information in a foraging landscape that can impact what flowers they choose to visit," she said. "Through the use of social information, the information obtained by observing other animals, bumblebees can gauge whether or not food is available from certain flowers."
Marie originally intended to study music at UNT, but decided to pursue ecology before starting her freshman year. She applied to work in Dr. Lichtenberg's lab on a whim, unsure of her specific research interests. After a year of caring for bees and running experiments, she decided to start her own project. To begin, she dove into literature already published on the topic. She admits this was a challenging task at first, but that it eventually got easier with the more articles she read.
"One thing I am grateful for was how helpful Dr. Lichtenberg was when first beginning this research," Marie said. "We would discuss relevant articles every week last summer, and she would guide me in what articles to look for and how to find them. Now, a year into the project, she encourages me to think through problems myself and collaborate with other lab mates."
One of those lab mates is Rob Whyle, a graduate student who is also working in the lab. Their hope is that his PhD work will build off Marie's, allowing them to delve deeper into the complicated foraging environment bumblebees can learn in. They have found that conducting the research is incredibly rewarding.
"A lot of the work, so far, has required me to actively problem solve and get crafty," said Marie. "I sort of have to think about things from the bee's perspective to get them to exhibit the behaviors I'm looking for and not anger them. When I do overcome little difficulties and the bees start responding positively, it is a gratifying feeling."
Marie regards her choice to attend UNT and join the ecology program as one of her "best decisions to date."
"The keen, helpful, and loving students, staff, and faculty involved in the UNT ecology program have made my time here worthwhile," she said.
Marie is still collecting data, but hopes to present her research at Scholars Day next spring and the Animal Behavior Society conference next summer. Her advice for other students curious about getting into research: "Lean into the topics you might be slightly interested in and take on any opportunities that are presented to you!"
For more information about Dr. Lichtenberg's laboratory, visit https://biology.unt.edu/lichtenberg-lab