Mechanisms Underlying Behavioral Diversity
Understanding how genes regulate diverse animal and human behaviors, such as parental care, the exploration of the environment, and aggression, is relevant to neuroscience and for society at large. My research takes advantage of new genetic, molecular, and neuroscientific tools to study the astounding diversity of behavior in animals to discover how variation in genes and brains lead to differences in behavior among individuals.
To identify mechanisms responsible for behavioral diversity we use species of deer mice that behave in remarkably different ways. In monogamous species both fathers and mothers care for their young, while in promiscuous species only the mother displays parental behavior and at a lower level than the monogamous mothers. I discovered that the promiscuous species produces more vasopressin—a neurotransmitter—in their brain than the monogamous species, that vasopressin inhibits parental care, and that having more of this neurotransmitter contributes to their lower parental care. We are now searching for additional differences in the genes and brains of these species that explain why they vary in the parental care they provide. We are also studying how species of deer mice that live in open habitats with sparse vegetation differ in the strategies they use to explore their environment from species that live in areas with dense vegetation cover—such as prairies and forests—that offer more protection from aerial predators.
In addition to our work in deer mice, we are characterizing the molecular, genetic and neuronal mechanisms responsible for the high levels of aggression in Siamese Fighting Fish (Betta splendens). By comparing our results to the biology of aggression in other species we will identify genetic and neuronal features of aggression that are conserved across animals. Our work will lead to novel insights into the neurobiology underlying a behavior that is widespread in nature and that strongly impacts human interactions.
In summary, my research program occupies a niche at the intersection of genetics and neuroscience. It leverages natural variation in behavior in a diversity of vertebrates to uncover fundamental principles about the evolution of behavior and function of the brain, with an emphasis on behaviors that are significant in nature and of great relevance to humans.