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My primary research interest is in the evolution of complex behavioral traits such as communication and social behavior. Our goal is to understand how microevolutionary processes acting on a generation time scale (e.g., random genetic drift, selection, learning) translate into the macro-evolutionary patterns we see across species, with the hope also of using interspecific data sets to understand phenotypic evolution. Our research has divided itself into: 1) empirical studies of communication and social behavior using lizards as a model system, 2) development of statistical and computer tools for exploring and analyzing interspecific data in a phylogenetic context, and 3) coordination of a community-wide effort to store large quantities of behavioral information in electronic form and to make it available to others on-line.
The main goal of our empirical research is to identify specific aspects of behavior that might evolve, to learn more about the mechanisms by which they might evolve, and to trace those aspects through small differences among populations to big differences among species or clades. We do this using a combination of field and laboratory experiments, supplemented by frequent applications of the comparative method. Along the way, students in my lab have developed projects on questions as diverse as speciation, conservation, the effects of provisioning on social structure, learning, territoriality and chemical communication. Although most of our research focuses on the headbob displays produced by many species of lizards, we work on a variety of different taxa in North America (spiny lizards: Sceloporus), the Caribbean (rock iguanas: Cyclura), and South America (Liolaemus).
Public databases and comparative studies are used throughout biology, whenever researchers are searching for general patterns that are true for large groups of organisms or are trying to understand how specific patterns came to be. Much of our lab’s past research has involved the development of statistical methods for incorporating phylogenetic information into such analyses. We also produce the COMPARE package of computer programs, which allows other researchers to apply several phylogenetic methods to their own data over the internet. More recently, we are coordinating a community-wide effort (EthoSource) to make behavioral data publicly available, including a public data repository and a dispersed, linked network of existing databases around the world. As part of this effort, our lab is creating our own archive of lizard display data, including film clips and several other types of behavioral measurements.