How individuals choose mates is a fundamental question in evolutionary biology. Mating decisions have broad consequences, influencing individual fitness and population-level evolutionary and ecological processes, including diversification, speciation, and extinction. Discriminating against potential mates from closely related co-occurring species is a vital step in finding an appropriate mate. However, individuals from many species learn with whom to mate by first observing a variety of conspecifics, which risks mistakenly learning from co-occurring species with similar phenotypes. Genetic divergence among species in sensory perception is widely hypothesized to reduce this risk, but the underlying mechanisms and, therefore, the evolutionary causes and consequences are poorly understood.
My proposal aims to uncover the causes and consequences of genetic divergence in auditory learning of songs, key species discrimination traits in birds. I have developed a powerful study system to distinguish the influences of genes and learning on species-specific song perception, employing two closely related Ficedula flycatcher species. I will use this tractable system to: (i) evaluate alternative evolutionary drivers of genetic divergence in song discrimination, (ii) determine the interplay between genetic effects and auditory learning throughout development, and (iii) associate species differences in discrimination with gene expression and, ultimately, divergence in gene regulation. To achieve these goals, I will integrate behavioural and neurogenomic approaches on populations across the flycatchers’ native range and from captive-reared populations, leveraging ongoing sequencing of songbird genomes to place flycatcher results in a broader evolutionary context. This integrative project will have the potential to radically change our understanding of the genetic basis of species differences in learned behaviors and will allow me to develop transformative, career-level research.
Fields of science
Funding SchemeERC-STG - Starting Grant