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.
I use parasites affecting montane vole (Microtus montanus) populations in the Rocky Mountains as a relevant system to investigate three main questions:
(1) Is there evidence for balancing selection (selection that maintains alleles in a population) on host immune genes (Major Histocompatibility Complex), and how is selection influenced by population dynamics?
(2) Is balancing selection mediated by parasites?
(3) What are the relative roles of parasites and sexual selection on MHC diversity across mammals?
For the past summers I have worked at RMBL (The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory) on an ongoing study of social behavior in yellow-bellied marmots. I have recently 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. I am also interested in genetic factors that may influence parasite resistance in these social animals.
The Odum School of Ecology participates in EcoReach, an ecology-oriented outreach program that strives to get school age children interested in science. It's a great local program put on by Ecology grad students, and its a nice way to connect with the larger community.