I am an evolutionary biologist who focuses on understanding the evolution of behavioral and life-history traits (e.g., allocation of resources to reproduction versus survivorship), and how these traits affect ecological processes. My work combines laboratory and field experiments with mathematical modeling. I enjoy collaborative work, in particular, and often use a collaborative approach in training my students, hence, I co-author many student publications. My research program has three main themes: 1) understanding the evolution of parental care behavior; 2) integrating behavior and evolution into studies of applied behavior; and 3) using modeling and other quantitative methods to understand the evolutionary dynamics of behavior.
Understanding the evolution of parental care
Life-history theory is heavily grounded in natural selection and is built on the principle of tradeoffs in resource and time allocation. An important tradeoff in parental care is between investing in current offspring versus expected future offspring. For example, providing additional parental care to current offspring comes at a cost to future offspring because that allocation of time and energy limits what can be invested to future mating efforts or self-maintenance (i.e., survivorship). From this perspective, it is puzzling why males provide parental care because they normally increase their lifetime reproductive success by fertilizing the eggs of more females rather than by investing in existing offspring. Thus, we would expect males to invest in courtship rather than parental care. My focus began with fishes that provide male-only parental care. Together with my collaborator Kai Lindström and members of our labs, I have shown that females may evaluate potential mates on the basis of their parental care behavior, preferring to mate with males that exhibit greater care. This leads to the hypothesis that male care behavior can be considered a form of courtship. Indeed, as this hypothesis predicts, we have found that males (of two unrelated fish species; one with a long evolutionary history of care, the other with a recent origin of care) exhibit care behaviors even in the absence of offspring and increase care in the presence of potential mates! Thus, my work has challenged a fundamental principle of life-history theory and demonstrated that paternal care can simultaneously serve two functions, improving offspring survivorship and increasing mating success. The effect of this dual function is that it reduces or eliminates the tradeoffs that theory assumes are present. More recently, my focus has moved to fish species with bi-parental care. In collaboration with my PhD student, Samantha Hilber, we have documented that some behaviors in a bi-parental cichlid fish serve both mating and parental care functions and hence, once again theoretical tradeoffs are reduced or avoided (see section 33). These studies are published in a series of papers in the top journals in my field (e.g., Animal Behaviour, Behavioral Ecology) and have led to a change in the conceptual understanding of the evolution of parental care.
Integrating behavior and evolution into studies of applied behavior
The importance of behavior and evolution in applied problems is rarely appreciated, although both have important implications for management and conservation. To integrate these disciplines into applied research, I have focused on several problems. These include the effects of environmental toxicants on reproductive morphology and behavior (e.g., McCoy et al. 2008), the implications of behavior for marine conservation and management (e.g., Lecchini et al. 2007), and the implications of animal personality and its relationship to life-history allocation for patterns of domestication and adaptive responses to urban environments (e.g., Garlock et al. accepted). These studies involve collaborations to which I bring my expertise in the empirical and conceptual study of behavior and life-history evolution. These research efforts have highlighted the importance of behavior and evolution in applied problems, and have helped to elucidate the value of using these approaches to applied problems.
Using modeling to understand the evolutionary dynamics of behavior
Finally, I have collaborated with a number of empirically oriented colleagues to implement mathematical models and to move their research questions forward conceptually. These studies are diverse, varying from dynamic models of antelope mating systems, calling behavior of frogs, and to mating strategies of spiders. When these collaborations involve students, my goals are two-fold: 1) to address fundamental questions in the discipline and 2) to build sufficient expertise in the use of simple mathematical or computational modeling that the students can implement these approaches, as needed, later in their careers. Training students to use quantitative methods in our discipline to maximize their success as scientists is a major contribution of my work in this area.