Pairing Behavioral Ecology with Comparative Methods and Molecular techniques

Understanding the evolution of complex displays, the social dynamics of bird populations, or the maintenance or breakdown of species boundaries often requires in-depth knowledge of behavior. When behavioral information is paired with comparative methods, molecular techniques, or is assessed within the context of recently divergent populations/hybrid zones, we can create a richer picture of how evolution shapes this fascinating behavioral diversity.

Starling for behavior sectionFor example, uncovering the origins of complex behavioral displays requires an understanding of the evolutionary relationships among species. It is only by pairing detailed behavioral studies with comparative methods that we can explore the evolution of complex behaviors. Additionally, we know that birds often mate with individuals outside of their social pair-bond, leading to complex social associations and variable patterns of paternity and relatedness across species. Uncovering these relationships requires using genetic samples from offspring and parents and reconstructing their true relatedness. It then becomes possible to test hypotheses about why individuals or species engage in particular mating behaviors. Finally, species boundaries are often influenced by behavioral interactions between divergent populations, and it is only by pairing molecular techniques and behavioral studies that we can shed light on the relationships between pre-mating social interactions and gene flow.

back half templateOver the years, students and postdocs studying behavior have comprised the largest sub-group within our lab community. Most often these individuals are engaged in intensive field studies of a particular system, testing explicit questions about the evolutionary or ecological causes and consequences of social behaviors. They often join our lab group to learn and deploy genetic methods of assessing relatedness; most of these studies have been done using microsatellite markers, but presently we use a combination of both microsatellites and SNPs. These studies do more than simply assess relatedness, however: they allow researchers to pair relatedness and mating success information with data such as male and female phenotypes, parental behavior, experimental manipulations of plumage or territory quality, sperm morphology/viability, and much more.

A sample of the study systems in which we have explored genetic mating systems includes:

  • cooperatively breeding American Crows from Ithaca
  • endangered and surprisingly monogamous Florida Scrub-Jays
  • both cooperative and non-cooperative starling species from Kenya
  • Tropical Mockingbirds from Bonaire
  • nearly all species of Tachycineta swallows from throughout the Americas
  • House Wrens from both Ithaca and Argentina
  • Red-backed and Variegated Fairy Wrens from Australia
  • Black-throated Blue Warblers from New England
  • Blue-winged Warblers from Ontario
  • Greater Black-backed and Herring Gulls from New Hampshire and Maine
  • Barn Swallows from both Ithaca and Israel
  • Banded Wrens from Costa Rica
  • House Finches from across North America
  • White-ruffed Manakins from Costa Rica
  • lekking Little Hermit hummingbirds from Trinidad
  • White-banded Tanagers from Colombia
  • Western Bluebirds from the upper Carmel Valley of California
  • Restinga Antwrens from Brazil
  • Chestnut-backed Antbird from Costa Rica
  • and many others.

Relevant publications

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