evolution meets conservation

Dr. Kopack and I have been working with collaborators, including several at Colorado Parks and Wildlife, to apply evolutionary theory to a conservation problem: rearing threatened Arkansas Darters that can survive in the wild after stocking. In this paper, we exposed darters to cues (visual and olfactory) of a novel predator and then assessed their behavior when they encountered a live predator. The treatment did plastically affect behavior, but not in the direction we expected. Fortunately, the darters also exhibited some innate ability to respond to the novel predator without training. This is just the beginning of this work so stay tuned.

Introducing Dr. Kopack

I’m so freaking proud of Chris Kopack. He very eloquently presented his PhD research and passed his defense. Congratulations Dr. Kopack!

Chris began working with me as an undergraduate and we’ve been collaborating ever since. We’ve done so much exciting research together over the years, and I know this is just the beginning. Since Chris is also one of my best friends, it was difficult to choose a photo of us, but this is one with John Kronenberger of my favorites…

NSF funded!

I am unbelievably excited to share the news that my NSF grant proposal was funded! With my partner in crime Robin Tinghitella, we’ll spend the next two years conducting a series of experiments to reveal the role of plasticity in facilitating novelty. Here is the project abstract. Stay tuned for exciting findings over the next few years!

The role of plasticity in the evolution of novelty in animal communication: Understanding how new traits arise is fundamental to explaining the diversity of life on Earth, but it is challenging to imagine how novel traits could arise in animal communication because communication requires coordination between a sender and a receiver. For example, if a sender evolves a novel signal, it may not be perceived or recognized by the intended receiver as a signal. Yet we know that novel signals do evolve. Plasticity has been suggested as a possible explanation. Plasticity refers to changes in an organism in response to the environment. For example, perhaps exposure to a novel signal plastically changes the preferences of the receiver so that they are willing to accept senders with this signal. In this proposal, the researchers capitalize on the recent discovery of two novel signals (songs) that Pacific field crickets use to attract mates. The researchers propose a large breeding experiment where male and female crickets are exposed to different songs, including the two novel songs, beginning at a young age. Researchers will then measure plasticity in adult crickets for a suite of reproductive traits to uncover the role of plasticity in the origins of novelty. This project also integrates education aims including founding a “Queer Science” organization to support young scientists in the LGBTQ+ community, mentoring diverse undergraduate students in independent research, creating teaching resources that use data from this research to teach about plasticity and novelty, and using a web-based citizen science platform to allow the public to participate directly in the research.

Exciting discovery in the Hawaiian fly-cricket system

This year we discovered something very exciting…the fly that kills our cricket in Hawaii is actually also hunting and eating alive at least 3 other cricket species! That makes our study system so much more complex! We showed that alternative hosts for the fly are present, that the fly can locate the crickets using their songs, and that flies can develop in these new cricket species. Check out our paper!

Check out our latest research!

I’m so excited to share this paper! Working on this project has ben a labor of love and a joy from start to finish thanks to the amazing team. The paper has so many cool results from discovering a new sexual signal to identifying multiple events of decoupling between morphology and signal. Jay certainly set a high bar for his first PhD chapter. Check it out!

Paper out

First, I have to say that from start to finish, working with Ecology and Evolution was wonderful—perhaps my best publishing experience (5 stars). This project also included many authors and was truly a team effort (as indicated by 3 co-first authors), which made it a lot of fun.

When sexual signals evolve, most attention is paid to impacts on intended receivers (potential mates) rather than fitness consequences for eavesdroppers. We asked how the deadly acoustically hunting parasitoid fly, Ormia ochracea, is responding to novel changes in cricket host signals (songs). Flies strongly preferred ancestral song over novel songs in both the field and the lab, but we caught more flies to novel songs in the field than reported in previous work, indicating that flies may be exerting some selective pressure. When played at realistic amplitudes, we found no preferences–flies responded equally to novel songs that varied in frequency, broadbandedness, and temporal measures. However, our lab experiment revealed the first evidence of preference for song amplitude–they like louder novel songs. Check out the paper to learn more!

ISBE Stockholm

It was surreal to attend a conference after several years of only virtual gatherings. This one happened to be in a wonderful location… Stockholm! I had never visited Sweden–what a beautiful place (at least this time of year). It was so much fun attending with the entire Tinghitella lab. Everyone gave outstanding talks and posters–I’m so lucky to be a part of this research group. I also saw some truly impressive talks from other scientists that I hadn’t heard of prior to this meeting–I took lots of notes and have lots of ideas. Thanks ISBE for a lovely conference.

Kauai time

We made it to one more island–Kauai. We decided to only tackle one island because of the covid risks, and I’m grateful that we all stayed healthy thanks to N95s. It was so wonderful seeing where Robin is spending her sabbatical, and I finally got to meet some of the Bailey lab! It was great hearing about the related work they are tackling over in Scotland. A few weeks of stunning weather was also great for the soul–it was tough returning to snowy MN. (Most photos from Robin)

Small but mighty field season

Jay, Robin, and I just wrapped up a two-week field season that was SO productive! We made many discoveries and even managed to collect more data than we planned. We are so grateful that were able to visit the original site of the purring cricket discovery after two years of COVID lockdown. In the words of Jay, “an extra big mahalo to the residents and caretakers at Kalaupapa, Molokai who value our science enough to share their very special home with us.” We especially loved spending time with Sister Barbara Jean, Sister Alicia, Glauco, Tim, Kristin, and all the new friends who stopped by to chat with us. I’d also like to thank my friends on Hilo for providing us with the most random list of research supplies (rakes, Tupperware, a microscope, and more). Helen Sofaer and Luke Caldwell you are lifesavers! (Yes I had 3 hair styles in 2 weeks – might be a new record)

Can flies hear purring crickets?

One of the perks of moving to the Twin Cities is that I’m close to my collaborator, Norman Lee. He is a talented neurobiologist and one of the only people to successfully rear the parasitoid fly that eats our Hawaiian crickets alive. With Norman and my amazing research partner and mentee, Aaron Wikle, we’ve been measuring neural and behavioral responses of flies to novel cricket songs like purring. Stay tuned (pun intended) to find out which cricket songs flies can most easily hear and which ones they prefer.