How do animals respond to new and changing environments? How is diversity is created and maintained? To address these fundamental question, I study rapid evolution using multiple study systems, both field and laboratory approaches, and integrative tools.
Here are some selected research questions:
How do new sexual signals evolve?
We’re currently documenting a diversification event in field crickets that were introduced to Hawaii. Male crickets call to attract females, but in Hawaii the songs also attract an introduced and deadly predator, a parasitoid fly. In the past 6 years we have discovered new airborne songs (purring #purringcrickets and rattling) as well as substrate-borne vibrations that males produce during courtship. We are tracking how the signals (songs and vibrations) and selective forces (from female crickets and flies) change over time to help us understand the origins of novel signals.
What is the role of phenotypic plasticity in rapid evolution?
By taking advantage of newly evolved cricket songs, we can design experiments to test the role of plasticity in the spread of this novel signal. We are exploring plasticity of the signals as well as plasticity of the preferences and sensory abilities of receivers (crickets and flies). Another way to study rapid evolution to novel environments is by experimentally introducing animals to new locations. We transplanted guppies (small freshwater fish) to streams with new selective pressures and used common garden quantitative genetics experiments to investigate the role of the environment (plasticity) in the early stages of adaptation for traits like cerebral laterality, genitalia, foraging behavior, personality, and mating behavior in guppies.
Applying evolutionary theory to conservation issues:
Can we use developmental plasticity to increase survival in sport and threatened fishes? We are using our understanding of how genes and the environment shape phenotypes to try to increase the survival of hatchery fish after they are stocked in Colorado. We’ve already learned a lot about how we can increase antipredator behavior in rainbow trout and Arkansas Darters through abiotic enrichment and predator training in the hatchery.
How does gene flow affect local adaptation? This question informs management decisions about when and how to supplement wild populations to prevent them from going extinct.
Using authentic science to improve education and DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) in STEM:
How does conducting and presenting scientific research affect self-efficacy and interest in science careers? This question drives my approach to undergraduate and graduate teaching. I also explored this question with my decade-long after school science program in a minoritized community. Middle school students who participated in the after school program reported higher self-efficacy (confidence in their ability to conduct science) and interest in pursuing careers in science after presenting their research at a local conference. I’m also exploring the connection between science communication and DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) as a member of the steering committee for an NSF-funded RCN-UBE grant through DU.
Can we use inquiry approaches to improve evolution education? We developed a weeklong program, working closely with a group of fabulous middle school science teachers, to teach evolution by natural selection. The program was so successful that I worked with Dr. Emily Kane and the CSU College of Natural Science Education and Outreach Center to make it into a kit. By packaging our weeklong program into a 2-hour self-guided inquiry kit with live animals, we have been able to provide an amazing resource to a much broader audience–anyone able to come to CSU is welcome to schedule a kit session at the Education and Outreach Center. Dr. Kane and I also use the kit in our undergraduate courses at our respective institutions.