Organisms interact with each other as sexual or social partners, competitors, predators and prey, or hosts and parasites. I am interested in how these interactions shape the evolution of organisms. I focus on the evolution of traits that are expressed during interactions: aggressiveness, mating behaviour, or anti-predator behaviour.
What is really cool about these traits is that they are determined simultaneously by genes within the organism that expresses them and by genes within the other organisms with which it interacts. These traits can also affect their own evolution.
Research in my lab is driven by questions like: How do predator-prey interactions shape prey and predator evolution? How does competition shape the maintenance of the differences we see among animals within a given population? How does the structure of mating interactions among males and females shape sexual selection?
I work on several projects:
- The evolution of web structure in black widows. Black widows spin three-dimensional webs that govern virtually all the interactions the spiders will have with other organisms. The web serves as a protection against predation and as a trap used to capture prey. It is also used by males to communicate with the females during mating interactions. My general goal is to understand how the structure of the prey community, the risk of predation, and the density of conspecifics shape the selection acting on the structure of these webs, and how web structure constrains or shapes the foraging behaviour of black widow spiders. This requires monitoring individual spiders on their web in their natural habitat and conducting targeted quantitative genetics experiments on populations held in the laboratory. I did much of this work with Dr. Nicholas DiRienzo. You can read more of my work on the spiders here, and there.
- Considering the consequences of individual variation in mating behavior for sexual selection. Mating interactions shape the morphology, physiology, and behavior of animals through sexual selection. A big question is how variation in sexually selected traits is maintained within populations. To answer this question, I analyze the consequences of variation in sexually selected traits for sexual selection itself using water striders (in collaboration with Dr. Andrew Sih and Dr. Tina Wey). Water striders exhibit a lot of individual variation in mate search behavior (males) and tolerance to male harassment (females). Individual variation in mating behavior is what makes up the social environment in which sexual partners interact and shapes the overall mating system and sexual selection. Using experiments and field work we try to understand how taking into account the variation in mating behavior among males or among females, and the pattern of plasticity of behavior, improves our ability to explain the variation mating success we see in populations. Accounting for this variation in behavior and behavioral plasticity also changes how we see sexual selection. This project is predominantly conducted in natural streams but also includes experiments in the laboratory. You can read more on this topic here and there.
- An ecological approach to understanding and predicting the behavior of video game players in virtual worlds. Virtual worlds are structured environments where ecological processes (competition, cooperation, predation, resource distribution) shape the structure of social interactions. This project aims at both informing game design with evolutionary and ecological theory and using video game data to test, refine, and increase the predictive power of ecological and evolutionary theoretical models. . We are currently recruiting behavioural ecologists with a strong interest in statistics, data visualisation, and programming for masters and PhD projects. These projects will include a yearly 4-month internship with a video game company. If you are interested, read the ad and contact me.
- Developing models to integrate the structure of interactions within models of evolution. A big body of theory (quantitative genetics) has aimed at predicting the pace and the direction of evolution. This theory has been very useful to optimise artificial selection of domestic animals or to predict how fast the morphology or behaviour of organisms can change from one generation to the next. Applying these models to behaviours that are expressed during organism-organism interactions is difficult because the models of quantitative genetics typically assume that all organisms interact with one another. In nature, we know that this is rarely the case: in groups, some individuals interact with one another more often, and individuals rarely interact with all the other members of their group or population. I am working with Dr. Joel McGlothlin and Dr. Damien Farine to explore how the structure of interactions (with whom an organism interacts and how intensely it does so) affects our predictions about the evolution of behaviour. You can read more on this here.