COGNITIVE AND BEHAVIORAL ECOLOGY LAB
in my lab broadly focuses on Animal Behavior and Behavioral Ecology
with special emphasis on animal cognition. We generally use
interdisciplinary approaches by bridging evolutionary and mechanistic
perspectives on behavior. The general research theme is to
understand both why specific behavioral traits evolved and how these
traits function by integrating all four of Tinbergen's questions
(development, mechanism, survival value and evolution) rather then
trying to address them separately. Proximate mechanisms underlying
behavioral traits may be better understood when placed within the
evolutionary context and, equally, evolution of behavioral traits may
be better understood knowing specific underlying mechanisms.
Most of our recent work has focused on investigating adaptive variation in cognition and the brain. Animals exhibit tremendous variation in cognitive abilities and brain structure, both across and within species, and our research aims to understand both evolutionary and proximate mechanisms underlying such variation by using comparative and experimental approaches. We concentrated our research efforts specifically on spatial memory and the hippocampus, a brain structure involved in spatial memory and used food-caching birds as our model. Most scatter-hoarding birds such as chickadees are well known to use spatial memory, at least in part, to recover previously made food caches and these memories are dependent on the hippocampus. These birds depend on food caches for overwinter survival and such dependence makes them a perfect target to investigate potential causes of variation in memory and hippocampal structure and neural processes. Our goal has been to identify specific environmental features that may influence selection strength on memory and to investigate whether selection on memory resulted in enhanced memory associated with specific changes in hippocampal structure and neural processes. We are specifically interested in determining whether adaptive variation in memory and the hippocampus is based mainly on experience-dependent plasticity or a product of inheritance, and we use a common garden approach to tackle this question. We also currently expanded our research scope to genetics and we use hi-res mRNA sequencing to test whether naturally occurring variation in memory and the hippocampus is associated with differential gene expression in the hippocampus.