My interests are broad and diverse, spanning the fields of animal behavior, ecology, evolution, and genetics. These are some hot topics that are currently on my mind:
Evolution during Domestication
One problem that has been relevant and unresolved for half a century deals with the process of domestication and its effects on wild populations. Salmonids and other commercial fish species have been raised commercially in hatcheries for over a century. Captive spawning and culture of salmonids can bring about rapid changes in phenotypes due to the inherent artificial selection imposed upon them. Some of this selection is deliberate, such as high growth rates and large body size in farmed Atlantic Salmon. Some of this selection is an unconscious byproduct of our sampling and breeding methods. For example, bold individuals are more likely to be caught in nets and traps. And some of this selection may be directly related to changes in the environment, such as a release from predation pressure. When the captive-bred fish are released into the wild, they interact with the native wild populations. There is still a debate as to the the effects and the scope of the effects of the interactions between wild and domestic populations. Using selective breeding studies and computer simulations, I hope to investigate the evolutionary process of domestication on behavioral traits as well as the evolutionary and ecological impacts releasing domestic populations into the wild may have on the wild populations.
Evolution and Quantitative Genetics of Complex Behavioral Traits
While we expect behaviors to be specific in response to a stimulus, there are some behaviors that appear to show consistent individual variation within a population across a variety of contexts. One example of this is the bold-shy continuum, where individuals toward the bold end of the spectrum consistently display signs of increased risk-taking, and individuals toward the shy end display signs of decreased risk taking. Treating an individual’s behavior as a phenotype, we have found that placement along the bold-shy continuum is a genetically heritable trait. In many species, we have observed correlations between feeding behaviors, place preference, and response to a threat. These correlations may be a result of common genetic components (pleiotropy), or they could be a result of correlated selection. I am using the Zebrafish as a model to answer questions about the genetic basis of the bold-shy continuum and how evolution along this axis affects the domestication process.
Behavioral ecology of risk-taking and anti-predator strategies
Boldness has been defined as the propensity to take risks. Therefore we assume that bold individuals engage in activities that are inherently risky. By modeling boldness as a risk-reward trade-off, we can make predictions about when risk-taking or risk-averse behaviors should be favored in a population. Predators are often described as a source of risk influencing behavior along this bold-shy continuum. However several studies comparing prey populations under high and low predation environments have found that those under high predation are more prone to engage in risky behavior than those from low predation environments. This trend runs contrary to expectations and leads me to ask what other environmental conditions can alter the risk-reward trade-off. I consider variables such as resource density, population density, social behaviors, and morphological features as mechanisms that could allow risk-taking to evolve in the presence of predators. Hypotheses around these questions can be investigated using in silico simulations and in vivo experimental evolution of populations raised under high and low predation pressures.