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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.

Parental Behavior

Lab member: Eva Fischer

O'Connell Lab Tadpole Transport Project Logo

What is the neural basis of species differences in parental care strategies? 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. Collaborator: Kyle Summers (East Carolina University)

Parent-Offspring Communication

Lab member: Lauren O'Connell

O'Connell Lab Parental Care Logo

How do neonates communicate nutritional need to parents? How do parents interpret the cries of their infants? 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-offspring communication from a mechanistic perspective. We are studying the neural basis of parent-offspring communication in poison frogs species where tadpoles beg mothers for meals. Collaborators: Kyle Summers (East Carolina University) and Paul Shamble (Harvard University)

Spatial Cognition

Lab member: Andrius Pasukonis, Daniel Shaykevich

O'Connell Lab Navigation Logo

How do poison 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. Collaborators: Max and Eva Ringler (via the Femoralis Project), Bibiana Rojas (University of Jyväskylä), and Luis Coloma (Centro Jambatu)

Vertebrate Pair Bonding

Lab member: Jessica Nowicki

O'Connell Lab Pair Bonding Logo

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), Nirao Shah (Stanford School of Medicine),  Kyle Summers (East Carolina University)