Photo of David Morris

David Morris, PhD Student

As an evolutionary ecologist, I see my role as two-fold. First, I have a responsibility to better understand evolution and how it has shaped the ecosystems that surround us. Second, I should work to educate others so they can appreciate evolution and the biodiversity it has generated. When done properly each role can and should inform the other.

My research interests center primarily on using comparative frameworks to understand how habitat influences diversification and speciation through sensory drive. Habitat characteristics impact both the efficacy of sensory systems and the signals they perceive, with important consequences for organismal fitness. Sensory drive can teach us about why organisms have become what they are, but perhaps more importantly it helps us understand how habitats impacted by anthropomorphic factors (such as climate change) will accommodate or challenge species into the future. 

As an educator, my interests lie primarily in giving undergraduate students the knowledge and skills they need to see biology as an interactive science instead of a collection of facts. My teaching style intentionally emphasizes the importance of computational tools and analytical techniques, training students to interact with and draw conclusions from data. Not only does this prepare students to be critical thinkers, but it also gives them hard skills which improve their employability across a wide range of fields. In an age of science denialism, it seems especially important to empower future leaders with the skills to draw evidence-based conclusions. 

2017-present PhD Candidate, Biological Sciences, University of Cincinnati 

2014-2017 Research and Teaching Assistant, Louisiana State University 

2010-2014 BS in Genetics and Biotechnology, Brigham Young University 

David Morris in the field

Current Research

My research in the Morehouse lab concerns the impacts of habitat diversity on the evolution of both sensory systems and organismal diversity. My work in the jumping spider genus Habronattus focuses on quantifying the visual components of male courtship displays across numerous species, and contrasting those displays to the environments they display in. By filming courtship displays with multiple cameras, I computationally reconstruct those movements in three dimensions and correlate it with particular types of habitat motion extracted from field videos. In the case of Habronattus color signals, I am using cutting-edge hyperspectral camera imaging to sample thousands of spectra we can use to determine color discriminability relative to spider habitat.

Collage of Habronattus spiders in their habitats

I am also pursuing more computational approaches to understanding the importance of habitat variation on evolution. First, I am measuring varying biomes using the aforementioned hyperspectral camera and using clustering techniques to quantify primary sources of visual variation within and between habitat types. Second, I am using a Receptor Noise Limited framework to explore color discrimination spaces and identify optimal visual system configurations. By exploring how discriminability is impacted as our simulations move between varying numbers of photoreceptor channels, I investigate what circumstances most advantage the evolution of increasingly complex color vision.

Collage of Habronattus spider habitats

Prior Research

I first started doing research in Keith Crandall’s lab during my undergraduate years at Brigham Young University. In addition to curating information that would contribute to the Decapod portion of the Tree of Life Project, I worked on a project interested in clarifying phylogenetic relationships and ancestral states of polyomaviruses. I later joined Seth Bybee’s lab, where I worked on large-scale Odonate systematics.

While a research assistant with Jeremy Brown at Louisiana State University, I continued focusing on phylogenetic questionsI worked primarily on exploring ways to account for site rate heterogeneity in ultraconserved elements, although I was also involved in projects exploring methods to visualize phylogenetic signals. Additionally, we did exploratory analyses for incorporating norovirus phylogenetics into models predicting viral outbreaks in oyster beds.


My first teaching experience was as an undergraduate, where I was the teaching assistant for the newly minted Introduction to Bioinformatics class at BYU. Over the first couple years, I was able to assist in developing novel curriculum that helped students build hard skills that translated into increased ability to participate in undergraduate research. I learned that undergraduate biology classes could teach relevant skillsets which inform research potential, and that my own research experience could make me a better instructor. 

While at LSU I had the opportunity to teach a Course-based Undergraduate Research Experience (CURE) lab which focused on real research output in the undergraduate classroom. Undergraduates were able to learn skills which immediately translated into employment potential and interest in research. Since then, at UC I have taught diverse undergraduate labs such as Ecology and Evolution, Introductory Biology, and Anatomy and Physiology. I feel strongly about giving undergraduate students opportunities to learn practical skills while performing real science, and I am excited to bring this stance with me into future classes I teach. 


Huang, Wen, Guifang Zhou, Melissa Marchand, Jeremy R. Ash, David Morris, Paul Van Dooren, Jeremy M. Brown, Kyle A. Gallivan, and Jim C. Wilgenbusch. 2016. TreeScaper: visualizing and extracting phylogenetic signal from sets of trees.Molecular Biology and Evolution 33(12): 3314-3316.