prof. ben steele

common eider

My research mostly involves human influence on natural systems. I involve students wherever possible.


For the last several years, I have traveled to Finland in the spring, where I study behavior of the Common Eider, a sea duck that occurs in the northern US as well as in Europe. These large ducks nest on islands close to shore and have an interesting cooperative breeding behavior. Females, who do all the tending of ducklings, often join with other females and pool their ducklings into one big group, sharing the responsibility for protecting them from predators. The main research questions are:

  • What determines whether a female will join another female, rather than tending her own ducklings? It turns out that strong females, capable of fending of predators by themselves, often tend alone, while females with less nutritional reserves often take on a weaker partner.

  • Do females benefit from joining with other females to tend for ducklings? It turns out that the dominant female in a coalition may be able to arrange the positions of the ducklings in a joint brood, putting hers closer to the protected center and the subordinate female's ducklings on the outer edge where they are susceptible to predation by Great Black Backed Gulls. We are still analyzing videos taken in the field to confirm this.

  • Under what conditions will a female adopt an abandoned duckling? Does she actually gain more protection for her own duckling by caring for an unrelated duckling?

  • Why do the females choose such a diverse array of nest sites? Does nesting under heavy vegetation and trees protect from crows stealing eggs but limit the escape possibilities for the female if a mink finds the nests? Does a nest on open rock afford better views of approaching predators?

Student Research

Students in the Biology Major have done a variety of research projects in ecology and animal behavior under my supervision. These include:

artificial nest

The Effect of Nest Predation due to Forest Fragmentation on Migratory Songbird Populations by Paul LaRose. Paul used artificial nests to measure nest predation on forest edges.

Predation on Bird's Nests at Forest Edges by Christine Sweeney. Tina used Paul's technique at the edges of small clearcuts.

Duck Mortality at Eagle River Flats, Goose Bay, and Suisitna, Alaska by Nat Cole. This was a part of a major project measuring duck mortality due to a toxin used in artillery shells on an Army base near Anchorage, Alaska. This study contributed to several published papers.

mammal foraging tray

Small Mammal Foraging at Forest Edges by Amy Bourassa. Amy measured foraging intensity of chipmunks using trays filled with sand containing seeds hidden in the sand.

Road Salt and pH Effects on Growth of Variable-leaf Milfoil by Robin Deverill. This aggressive, exotic plant has invaded many lakes in New Hampshire, out-competing native flora. Many of these lakes are near roads and thus receive runoff containing high concentrations of road salt. Robin found that salt has a limited effect on this aquatic plant.

The Induction of Frog Mutations by Area Water Sources by Mark Pedersen. Mark modified a standard assay to measure whether water from different New Hampshire lakes could result in mutation in frogs.

The Effects of Partial Logging on Forest Dwelling Birds by Leah Frezza. This was part of a larger field experiment on the effects of logging and housing development on forest bird populations.