My research focuses on the ecological and evolutionary drivers of genetic diversity, especially immune gene variation in wild populations. Selection mediated by parasites and mates is a strong interest.
Altitude effects on immune system investment
Harsh conditions at high elevations make energy conservation extremely challenging, and include lower oxygen availability, lower temperatures, and higher UV radiation, to name a few. However, mammals have been shown to adapt to some of these stressors.
The immune system is one of the most energetically expensive of life-history traits, costly to maintain and deploy. Therefore, high altitude environments may select for immune system adaptations that optimize energy allocation among competing life-history traits and reduce costs of activation, for example by selecting for immune tolerance rather than resistance to pathogens.
Working with Dr. Alexey Yanchucov and colleagues (Bülent Ecevit University, Turkey), we are investigating immune system adaptation to high altitude using Turkish blind mole-rats (Nannospalax xanthodon) and their parasites as a non-model system.
Genetically-based social communication in banded mongooses
In mammals, odor cues are the primary mechanism for social communication, including kin recognition and individual identification. It is currently unclear how genes influence odor signals, whether directly from by-products of self/non-self binding molecules (MHC) or indirectly by regulating microbial odor-producing communities.
With collaborators from the Banded Mongoose Research Project we will use behavioral and genetic data collected from wild banded mongooses to disentangle the genetic basis of social odors. This work is also in collaboration with Hazel Nichaols, Mike Cant, Tobias Lenz, Joe Hoffman, and Emma Vitikainen, and supported by the German Research Foundation (DFG).
Host-pathogen transcriptomic associations in common buzzards
We are investigating how niche choice (nest location), niche construction (adding nest greenery), color morph impact ectoparasite and blood parasite load in common buzzard chicks. We are also looking for morph-specific transcriptomic responses to parasites, and how host and parasite transcriptomics associate with infection loads. This work is part of the Collaborative Research Center project Niche Choice, Niche Conformance, Niche Construction (NC3).
Coevolution between human immune genes and pathogens
We are investigating how selection imposed by host immune responses has shaped pathogen genetic diversity.
Next Generation Sequencing and immune gene evolution: a comparative approach
I am comparing life-history traits, ecological factors, and parasite diversity across African rodents to better understand the evolutionary mechanisms that shape immune gene variation in wild populations. This large-scale project includes data from over 50 species of African rodents, and over 1000 individuals genotyped at the MHC Class II DRB locus using Next Generation Illumina sequencing.
Bat Genetic Immunity and Rabies
Bats host high viral diversity and have been implicated as the origins of a number of highly pathogenic emerging infectious diseases of humans and domestic animals. Despite much speculation on how the bat immune system might differ from other mammals in ways that promote viral circulation, surprisingly little is known about the genetic basis of immunity in bats.
This research, in collaboration with Daniel Streicker, will illuminate the relationship between an immune gene shared by all vertebrates and resistance to rabies virus, and increase our understanding of this relationship in a spatially explicit context across wild bat populations.
Parasites, Mate Choice, and MHC
Parasites can have dramatic affects on their hosts' populations, for example, regulating them or causing them to cycle. Hosts that have historically been plagued with fitness reducing parasites may have adapted strategies to counter the harm caused by parasites, employing behavioral and/or genetic defenses.
I am primarily interested in the interaction between the parasite and the host, how that relationship over time has directed adaptations in both, and that interaction's effect on social behavior of the host.
I am particularly interested in how mating behavior (mate choice) is influenced by pathogens, and how animals can select mates to improve the genetic resistance of their offspring. A key question is how common are the mechanisms of parasite-mediated selection and sexual selection acting on immune gene diversity across mammals.
Evolution and Animal Behavior
I have worked at The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) on an ongoing study of social behavior in yellow-bellied marmots. I worked with Dr. Dan Blumstein to try to determine if marmots have the ability to recognize extant and locally extinct predator vocalizations.
Other marmot related work includes identifying what is being communicated when marmot pups scream and why they do it.