Developmental drivers of behavioral individuality.

You are unique, just like everyone else. Individuals exhibit complex and dynamic patterns of behavior. These behavioral patterns have been shaped by cues from their genes, their parents and their own interactions with their environment. Our goal is to understand how individuals use, integrate and value these different sources of information to build their behavioral strategies from both a phenotypic and molecular perspective.

It is perhaps surprising how little we understand about the pattern and process of individual behavioral development. We take advantage of a unique fish species to address this: the Amazon molly (Poecilia formosa).  This incredible little fish naturally reproduces clonally producing all-female broods of genetically identical animals allowing us to disentangle genetic and environmental influences on individual behavior.

When does behavioral individuality emerge and in response to which cues?

Our recent work found that significant individual behavioral variation still emerges even genetically identical mollies raised under essentially identical conditions. This unexpected result suggests that sensitive environmental feedbacks and/or epigenetic mechanisms likely play a far larger role in the development of individual behavior than previously thought.

We built a high resolution automated tracking system that can follow the behavior of individual fish all day, every day, from the day the animals are born. This system is providing intimate looks into exactly when and why individuals get set down different behavioral trajectories. Bayesian updating provides a framework to understand how and why individuals use information. Our most current projects involve testing predictions drawn from their theory.

How does maternal experience influence offspring phenotypes?

kate laskowski
While they look small to us, these cichlids are mollies’ worst nightmare! Exposure to cues from these predators causes dramatic changes in individual behavior.

​Individuals may attend to and value cues coming from different sources differently. What happens when information from your mother conflicts with your own personal experiences? The threat of predation, like from these cichlids, plays a powerful role in shaping behavioral responses of many animals, including our mollies. We are currently investigating how early-life experience with predation threat can modulate behavioral trade-offs and feedback mechanisms.