Research

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!  The clonal nature of the Amazon molly lets us perform ‘twin studies’ where we can manipulate the experiences of different clones to disentangle genetic and environmental effects on behavioral development. This animal system is especially powerful as it lets us more easily find the signals of the molecular and neurological mechanisms underpinning behavior by removing the additional influence of genetic variation among individuals.

 

Gif showing our developmental tracking tanks and software following the behavior of 4 newborn mollies

We’ve 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. We’re using this system to investigate key questions about the development of individual behavior. We are able to quantify many aspects of swimming and foraging behavior, and social behaviors such as schooling and aggression. Additionally we manipulate the environment the animals experience by introducing different food, predator cues or social partners. In particular, our lab focuses on testing predictions derived from quantitative theory including Bayesian updating, signal detection theory and information theory to understand how and why individuals integrate information over their lifetimes to adjust their behavioral strategies. Current projects in the lab are focused on answering:

  • When does individuality in behavior emerge during development?
  • How does individual experience with different cues change their behavior?
  • Do individuals attend more to social or private information?
  • Do individuals value cues from different modalities (e.g. chemical versus visual) differently?
  • Do individuals control the social information they produce based on who is watching them?
  • What are the molecular and neurological mechanisms underlying behavioral change?

Please see our publications page for all our work!