Research

We investigate how animals use sensory cues from their environment in order to facilitate behavioral decision-making.

In particular, our goal is to understand how individuals sense and use sensory cues to allow them to effectively move in time and space.

To achieve this goal, we use behavioral, physiological, and genetic approaches to understand the functions, mechanisms, and evolution of animal movement.

Our work is currently focused on three research foci:

A) Animal Movement – Long-distance migration

We study how monarch butterflies use sensory-based compass mechanisms during their annual multigenerational migratory journey in North America.

For example, we examine how monarchs can use a time-compensated sun compass and an inclination-based magnetic compass, as a way to maintain properly oriented flight during migration. These compasses allow migratory monarchs on their maiden voyage during the fall to reach their overwintering sites in Central Mexico (southwards oriented flight), and facilitates their northwards return from the overwintering sites in the following spring (northwards oriented flight).

A major thrust of this work is to use the monarch as a way to understand how the brain of an individual receives and integrates environmental information, so that an individual can correctly arrive at a time and place that it has not been to before.

B) Animal Architecture – Design and Construction

We examine how silk moth caterpillars, in particular robin moth (cecropia silk moth) caterpillars, construct cocoons with complex, multi-layered architecture. A cocoon can serve as a protective structure during the critical pupal to adult developmental stage, for the individual contained within it. Cocoons can possess several biophysical properties that can buffer individuals from adverse environmental conditions.

We are using robin moths (and other silk moth species) to help us determine how the brain controls the performance of specific complex, multi-stage motor programs.

C) Animal Architecture – Bio-inspired PPE and improvised protective hardware for global public health initiatives

Based on our work on silk cocoon architecture, we are examining how silk fabric and principles of cocoon construction, can inform the design and implementation of next-generation PPE, protect current PPE, and improvised protective hardware, e.g., face coverings.

In addition to the basic knowledge on animal behavior that our research yields, our work can:

1) Inspire biomedical, biomimetic, and engineering applications

2) Provide information that might help preserve such wonders of nature

3) Serve as an accessible venue to advance science literacy and competency in our communities