Cooke’s “Sapsucker Tree” Prof Talk

by Luke Butner

The Student Honors Organization (SHO) hosted a “Prof Talk” on Feb. 9. A prof talk is an event we host at GC where professors highlight and present on their personal projects. The professor speaking on Feb. 9 was Dr. Sandra Cooke, a biology professor at GC.

A portrait of Dr. Sandra Cooke.

Cooke explained her prof talk was “a collaborative project [she] initiated in 2020 which aims to explore how urbanization affects sapsucker foraging patterns. Sapsuckers are woodpeckers that feed on tree sap by drilling small holes into trees. These holes, called sap wells, serve as food resource access points for more than 40 other species including hummingbirds and squirrels. Because of this important role, sapsuckers are called keystone species, which is defined as a species that has a disproportionately large impact on other species in an ecosystem. So, my project focuses on observing sap wells on trees and determining how factors like tree species, tree size and bark type affect sap well abundance across a rural-urban gradient.”

In other words, Cooke’s project is attempting to research the effects that different tree species, environments and humans have on these sap wells the sapsucker birds produce, which are so critical to many different species.

Cooke’s interest in this particular project started during the pandemic, when she “was trying to think of field projects that my ecology students could do on campus.” She is a member of a professional organization called the Ecological Research as Education Network (EREN), which is a group of ecologists from small colleges that seeks to implement doable-yet-authentic research projects into undergraduate ecology courses. Cooke noticed lots of sap wells on GC’s campus trees and she thought exploring questions about these sap wells would make a good research-as-education project. She then wrote a proposal to EREN, and they awarded her a small grant to develop the idea into a collaborative research project in which other EREN colleges could participate.

Her project seems to be going very well, currently having almost 600 trees observed at eight different colleges (aside from GC). Cooke decided to implement the project in more courses, like BIO 1110, as a research-as-education project.

Cooke decided to turn this presentation into a prof talk because last year the Honors program asked her to do a prof talk and she chose to talk about this project because it’s become her primary research focus. She also noted that she has many other diverse projects ongoing at the same time, and we hope that one day Cooke will give many more prof-talks on her other projects.


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