Broadly, my work is focused on exploring the evolution and ecology of non-human primate and human sensory systems using molecular, psychophysical, behavioral and field ecology toolkits. I currently am engaged in two major research projects/programs.
Sensory Ecology of Vision and Taste in Lemurs
My long-term research program is focused on investigating how ecological factors (e.g., diet, activity pattern, and habitat) influence interspecific and intraspecific variation in lemur visual and taste systems. Because they are an adaptive radiation of closely related taxa exploiting sometimes divergent ecological niches, Malagasy lemurs are an ideal group in which to explore a variety of exciting evolutionary and sensory questions. For example, how do habitat differences in light environments
influence the loss of functional color vision in some nocturnal primate lineages
? How do foraging strategy, diet, and activity pattern influence interspecific variation in visual acuity (in strepsirrhines
and across mammals
), eye morphology
, color vision (evolution of polymorphic trichromacy
or retention of dichromacy
), or taste? Conversely, how does intraspecific variation in color vision influence reproductive success and feeding behavior
in polymorphic trichromat species like sifaka (Propithecus verreauxi
Some current projects within this research program I’m working on include a collaboration with several researchers to develop a rapid psychophysical test of visual function for primates in captivity, and collaborations investigating intraspecific and interspecific variation in taste receptor genes and gene expression.
Subsistence Strategies and the Evolution of Human Sensory Systems
The transition from hunting and gathering to agricultural food production beginning around 10,000 years ago represents one of the most profound shifts in human history, resulting in major changes to our environments, social structure, and genomes. Mammalian sensory systems are often tightly linked to foraging strategy. Consequently, changes in foraging strategy and diet are associated with evolutionary changes in sensory capabilities (olfaction, taste, color vision). As part of inter-university collaboration with researchers Eva Garrett (Boston University), Amanda Melin (University of Calgary), PJ Perry (Penn State), and Nate Dominy (Dartmouth College), we have sequenced all olfactory receptor, taste receptor, and opsin genes in hunter-gatherer and agriculturalist populations from two separate geographic regions. By sequencing the “sensory genome” as well as neutral intergenic regions, we can test whether changes in subsistence strategy have influenced selective pressures on human sensory systems.
I received an American Association of University Women Postdoctoral Research Fellowship (2015-2016) to support my work on this project. Preliminary results were presented at the August 2016 International Primatological Society Congress in Chicago.