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Watts Lab Research

Research in our lab occurs at the interface of animal behavior, physiology, ecology, and evolution. We seek to understand the mechanisms underlying life history patterns, particularly the timing of major life history events such as reproduction and migration, and the selective pressures shaping these patterns. We have worked with both mammalian and avian systems in the past, but we now focus primarily on songbirds. Songbirds are particularly well suited for addressing our research questions and to our approach of combining field and laboratory studies

The timing of life history transitions

Appropriate timing of life history transitions such that life history stages (e.g., reproduction and migration) coincide with suitable environmental conditions is critical to the fitness of many organisms. Consequently, many animals use environmental cues to time these transitions. Although photoperiod is the best studied of such environmental cues, animals may also use other cues such as temperature, rainfall, food availability, and social cues. These less studied, non-photoperiod cues are an area of focus in the lab; we are especially interested in the role of social cues and how multiple environmental cues are integrated to time transitions. Our work on life history timing takes both a proximate approach (e.g., what are the mechanisms by which environmental cues influence physiology and behavior?) and an ultimate approach (e.g., how do timing mechanisms vary across species, and how has this evolved?). Our lab is particularly interested in understanding:

  • The role of non-photoperiodic cues in reproductive timing
  • The use of environmental cues to time facultative migration
  • The endocrine and neuroendocrine mechanisms involved in mediating life history transitions

Our research in this area has been supported by NSF IOS 1456954/1756976 and NSF IOS 1755227 (in collaboration with Jamie Cornelius)

Inter-individual variation in response to environmental cues

Traditionally, studies investigating the use of environmental cues to time reproduction have focused on the mean response of individuals to a particular cue or set of cues. However, individuals in such studies typically vary in their response to a given cue or set of cues. This variation has received relatively little attention. Yet, it is potentially important because it may reflect the potential for a species to adapt to environmental changes. Our research aims to elucidate both the causes and consequences of such inter-individual variation in responses to environmental cues.