We are interested in evolutionary changes in the nervous system and behavior. How do these changes occur? What happens to behavior as the brain evolves? As a model system, our research focuses on the olfactory system and olfactory-guided behavior in vertebrates. Most of our studies involve amphibians, particularly axolotls (Ambystoma mexicanum) and tiger salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum), but we have also worked with other salamanders as well as frogs, lampreys, and goldfish. Recently, we also began examining responses to conspecific chemical signals in rough-skinned newts (Taricha granulosa). We use a combination of techniques and approaches, including behavioral observation, electrophysiology, molecular biology, and neuroanatomy.
Our recent work focusses on the evolution and function of the vomeronasal system and terminal nerve. The vomeronasal organ first appears as a discrete structure in tetrapods, although elements of the system are present in fishes. Although the vomeronasal system is commonly portrayed as being specialized for pheromone detection, its function relative to the main olfactory system is actually unclear. We are currently pursuing electrophysiological and behavioral studies to try to understand the function of the vomeronasal system in aquatic amphibians. The terminal nerve arose earlier, perhaps in early jawed vertebrates. Our studies indicate that the terminal nerve functions to regulate odorant responses in the olfactory epithelium in response to changing behavioral and physiological contexts.
Students in the lab are encouraged to pursue their own research interests within the general area of biology that includes the study of the evolution of the nervous system and behavior.
"This works great when it works."