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Neuroscience in Changing Ecosystems

Organisms are facing unprecedented environmental change. The impacts of human-driven climate change on organismal diversity and behavior are unknown and still unpredictable. Environment change, both natural and human-driven, not only impacts the way organisms look, behave and interact with their environment, but also impacts the internal, local environment of organs tissues and cells through changes to physiology and tissue plasticity. 

Through evolutionary time, the ancestral environment, or the environment of previous generations, alters reproductive success, transmission of genes and traits and the degree to which subsequent generations can respond to environmental perturbations. The developmental environment of the individual interacts with genes to drive the shape, function and degree of tissue and behavioral plasticity (e.g., through the formation of stem cell pools, etc.). The immediate environment, or the environment that impacts the organisms post-embryonic development, alters the physiology of an organism within the context of the ancestral and developmental environments and drives plasticity in structure, organization, and function of tissues. Given human-driven environmental change impacts all three environments across evolutionary and contemporary time, the consequences of ecosystem change is obvious, yet unknown.

In our lab, we take two approaches to exploring how human-driven environmental change will impact plasticity of the nervous system and cell and organismal behavior. First, we have identified a population of white-crowned sparrows that have recently acquired higher variability in morphology and behavior. We are examining how environmental change in the wintering, breeding and migratory grounds might be contributing to the divergence and increased variability in sparrow body and brain organization and function and the sparrow's ability and motivation to perform biologically-relevant behavior. Second, we are manipulating the timing and occurrence of major life history events to identify under controlled laboratory settings how environmental factors and the timing of specific behaviors alter neural structure, organization, and plasticity.

By studying the genomic, physiological, cellular, and molecular mechanisms that contribute to diversification of morphology and behavior, we not only have the opportunity to uncover how evolution has driven behavior and species diversity, but also to identify novel mechanisms driving neural and behavioral plasticity and to assist with mitigation effort to preserve populations and species diversity.

Worthwhile reads:

Leveraging neuroscience for climate change research

Environmental neuroscience

Neurobiology and changing ecosystems

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