Behavioral Genetics


Recent advances in sequencing techniques and transgenic tools make it possible to answer some of the most difficult and important questions in animal behavior. For example, we now have the technical ability to determine the genetic and neural mechanisms underlying behavioral development, signal processing, and decision making.

Research in the Westerman lab integrates classic animal behavior with genomics, transgenics, and neurobiology techniques to better understand the mechanisms of behavior. While we are broadly interested in behavioral genetics, a majority of our research focuses on determining the mechanisms underlying visual communication, sexual selection, and social behavior.

The genetics of visual attraction

The visual components of mating displays are often a complex combination of size, shape, a sequence of motions, patterning, and color. The complexity of signaling in this sensory modality makes identifying genes associated with variation in preference for specific elements of the visual display difficult. Butterflies, and particularly Heliconius butterflies, have proven valuable in this regard, because males in multiple species approach and court females based on the presence or absence of specific colors on the female forewing, making male approach a behavioral response to a single visual signal. In addition, some species, such as Heliconius cydno, are polymorphic for both forewing color and male mate preference.

We take advantage of this polymorphism in preference and morphology, and the recent burst in genomic and transgenic tools available for non-model systems, to study the genetics of visual attraction. In collaboration with the Kronforst Lab at the University of Chicago, we have identified candidate genes for visual attraction, and are determining the genetics of assortative mating. Please stay tuned for upcoming manuscripts.


Relevant Publications

Westerman, E.L., Letchinger, R., Tenger-Trolander, A., Massardo, D., Palmer, D., Kronforst, M.R. (in press) Does male preference play a role in maintaining female limited polymorphism in a Batesian mimetic butterfly? Behavioural Processes

Zhang, W., Westerman, E., Nittany, E., Palmer, S., Kronforst, M.R. (2017) Tracing the origin and evolution of supergene mimicry in butterflies. Nature Communications 8:1269 DOI: 10.1038/s41467-017-01370-1



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