Photo of Olivia Harris

Olivia Harris, PhD Candidate

I am a visual ecologist studying animal perception, cognition and behaviorMy research interests are centered around the ways in which animal systems perceive the world around them – specifically, how perceived reality aligns or misaligns with physical reality. Pragmatic sensory systems often use cognitive shortcuts to save time and energy, creating perceptual realities that are useful rather than accurate. For visual systems, the shortcomings of such shortcuts are exposed in high relief by visual illusionsI am especially interested in studying how visual illusions have evolved to exploit the perceptual reality of receivers to the benefit of signalers on morphological, psychophysical and ecological scales. My dissertation work in the Morehouse lab explores color perception, sensory exploitation and signaling ecology in jumping spiders. Through modeling and behavior, this work allows me to indulge in my love of designing and building novel equipment for behavioral applications. When I am not exploring alternate realities with jumping spiders, I enjoy working with community partners to increase scientific accessibility through outreach programs and activism. 

2018-present Ph.D.  student, Biological Sciences, University of Cincinnati, OH

2014-2018 B.S. Biology and Psychology, University of South Carolina, SC

Trackball with spider

Current Research

I am currently working to understand the evolution of color vision and color signals in jumping spiders. Jumping spiders must make sense of complex visual information, from eight eyes and through multiple color channels. I am investigating how tiny hunters perceive color and how color signals are used in courtship behaviors. I am characterizing salticid color vision using computer modeling and two custom-built behavioral paradigms; an air-assisted treadball used to quantify whole body movements, and a gaze-tracking ophthalmoscope from the Jakob lab at UMASS used to record fine retinal movements. To explore how coloration contributes to the elaborate courtship displays performed by males, I am using both behavioral experiments with the local Habronattus genus, as well as machine learning and computer vision for the Australian Maratus genus. In the Habronattus I am investigating how color patterns on male faces and abdomens might create depth illusions that increase female attention during courtship. In the Maratus I am modeling how some male displays might be misclassified as a predator, exploiting the female fear response to reduce pre-copulatory cannibalism

Collage of images of jumping spiders

Prior Research

In 2018 I received a Bachelor of Science in Biology and Psychology from the University of South Carolina. My honors thesis was on structural coloration in the eyes of bay scallops, under the supervision of Dan Speiser. While at USC I also worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as a Hollings Scholar researching sound ecology of invasive lionfish. I also spent two summers abroad on NSF REU grants; first in Singapore as a research technician at Nanyang Technological University, where I worked on UV-curing medical polymers, and then in Vera Cruz, Mexico in collaboration with a local non-profit where I studied nesting behavior of the endangered Kemp’s Ridley marine turtle.

Popular Science Engagement

You’re Not Seeing Things, These Spider Butts Look Like Faces 

Kimberly Hickok – January 10, 2020 


Sung JY*, Harris OK*, Hensley NM, Chemero AP, and Morehouse NI. 2021. Beyond cognitive templates: re-examining template metaphors used for animal recognition and navigationIntegrative and Comparative Biology. (In review)  *co-first-authorship 

Harris, O.K., Kingston, A. C., Wolfe, C. S., Ghoshroy, S., Johnsen, S., & Speiser, D. I. 2019. Core–shell nanospheres behind the blue eyes of the bay scallop Argopecten irradians.  Journal of the Royal Society Interface, 16(159), 20190383.