We study the evolution of behavior in response to social and environmental variables. Amphibians display extreme behavioral variation among closely related species. This diversity allows us to explore how novel behaviors and their underlying mechanisms evolve. We combine field work and laboratory studies to explore these questions across multiple biological levels.
What is the neural basis of species differences in parental care strategies? How does transport influence the behavior and brain architecture of tadpoles? Poison frogs show a great variety of parental care strategies within closely related species, including male uniparental, female uniparental, and biparental care. It is rare among vertebrates for parental behavior to vary in such extremes within closely related species. Moreover, male uniparental species allow us to examine the neural basis of paternal behavior without the confounds of pair bonding or maternal involvement, which is not possible in mammals. We are currently studying the neural basis of tadpole transport behavior and investigating this interaction from both a parent and tadpole perspective. Collaborator: Kyle Summers (East Carolina University)
How do parents interpret the cries of their infants? How do parents communicate to coordinate care for offspring? Communication between parents to coordinate care for offspring as well as communication between parents and offspring is required for survival in altricial animals, like mammals (including humans), birds, and some amphibians. Yet we understand very little about the co-evolution of parent-parent and parent-offspring communication from a mechanistic perspective. We are studying the neural basis of behavioral coordination and communication in a biparental poison frogs species where tadpoles beg parents for meals. Collaborator: Kyle Summers (East Carolina University)
How do frogs navigate their environment ? Poison frogs transport their tadpoles from the leaf litter to pools of water. In some species, mothers place tadpoles individually in small plants and then return to feed each tadpole every few days for several months. These behaviors are energetically expensive and cognitively demanding, as not only do frog parents need to remember where these pools are located, but some moms frequently return to feed their tadpoles. We are investigating species differences in spatial cognition as a function of sex differences in parental behavior in poison frogs. Additionally, we are studying spatial behavior in cane toads, who are large enough to carry neural recording devices on their heads and have some applied invasion ecology aspects to their behavior. Collaborators: Max and Eva Ringler (via the Femoralis Project), Bibiana Rojas (University of Jyväskylä), and Luis Coloma (Centro Jambatu)
Vertebrate Pair Bonding
Does the convergent evolution of pair bonding across vertebrates rely on similar neural mechanisms? Social bonds, such as pair bonds, are critical for mental health. In order to identify generalizable and thus translatable principals, we are studying the underlying mechanisms of pair bonding across phylogenically diverse taxa, including butterflyfish, poison frogs, skinks, quail, and voles. This project re-traces the deep, ~450 million years of evolutionary history of vertebrate pair bonding and aims to identify fundamental neural principles that might inform the human condition. Collaborators: Elizabeth Adkins-Regan (Cornell University), Darren Coker (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology), Mike Gardner (Flinders University), Alex Ophir (Cornell University), Kyle Summers (East Carolina University)
Evolution of Sociality and Aggression
What is the neural basis of sociality and aggression? Poison frog tadpoles vary in their level of sociality, or whether individuals can tolerate being in a social group or display fierce aggression. Some species are group-transported into large pools of water with their siblings and are very sociable. Others tadpole species live in extremely small pools and are fiercely aggressive in defence of their territory. We are exploring the environmental factors that led to species differences in tadpole sociality from an evolutionary neuroscience perspective.
What is the neural basis of parental care in arthopods? Similar to vertebrates, many arthropod species show parental care to increase the survival of their offspring. We are studying this process in wolf spiders, which carry their spiderlings on their backs. We are working on building the tools and resources to study the neurethology of behavior in this facinating species. Collaborator: Paul Shamble (Harvard University)