My main research interests surround investigating the role of adaptive genes on the evolutionary and behavioral ecology in vertebrates. This may involve signals of adaptive genes, such as the major histocompatibility complex. I am currently researching chemical ecology, immunogenetics, behavior, and microbial symbionts in songbirds at the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action at Michigan State University.
Ph.D. (Supervisor: Beth MacDougall-Shackleton)
Sexual selection and competition drive the evolution of ornaments and armaments in a wide-variety of taxa. The good gene hypothesis posits that phenotypic characteristics honestly signal genetic quality of an individual. In most bird species, males are ornamented, and females tend to choose the most ornamented males as mates. However, a recent paradigm-shift in behavioral ecology is to look beyond the good gene hypothesis and into genetic compatibility (e.g. heterozygote advantage) as a means for choosing mates. A candidate locus in which both good gene- and compatible gene-mediated mate choice has been documented is the major histocompatibility complex (MHC). MHC is a highly polymorphic gene that is essential to the vertebrate adaptive immune system. Ideally, carrying more MHC alleles increases the chance of fighting off a wider variety of pathogens (however, evidence shows that carrying an intermediate amount of alleles may be most ideal as too many MHC alleles could cause autoimmune disorders).
In most vertebrates, females are able to distinguish MHC-compatible mates through odor. In mammals and fish, MHC peptide ligands are found in urine, which is detected by a potential mate. Most animals seem to prefer MHC dissimilar mates, which supports the compatible gene theory.
The constant battle between parasites and their hosts in their ecosystem may provide support for a locally good gene effect at MHC. If a particular MHC allele evolved to combat a parasite lineage specific to their environment, then it would be beneficial for an individual to choose a mate that carries that locally good allele. This may explain why some birds prefer local dialects over foreign ones.
My research aims to explain (a) how MHC is communicated in songbirds and (b) if MHC-mediated mate choice exists in my model organism. I am exploring my research using a model songbird, the song sparrow (Melospiza melodia).
MSc (Supervisor: Colleen Barber)
Plumage and song are thought to be honest signals of genetic quality in birds. My study on mate choice in European starlings revealed that brightness and purple coloration of starling throat feathers predicted adult body condition, parental care, realized reproductive success, and a male-biased offspring sex ratio. With that study, I deduced that mate assessment is taking place for both males and females, which is not overly common in avian mating systems.
Ultimately, my interests surround question-based research in evolutionary ecology. Specialization is in sexual selection, however, I am not restricted to this area of research. I would like to do postdoctoral research studying animal evolutionary ecology in a lab that has a project that interests me.
Zelano, B., & Edwards, S.V. 2002. An Mhc component to kin recognition and mate choice in birds: Predictions, progress, and prospects. Am Nat, 160: S225-S237.