How has complex social behavior evolved?


What are the neural and molecular mechanisms underlying specific behavioral patterns?


Is there a common neural and molecular tool kit that governs social behavior across species?






       Research in our laboratory seeks to answer these questions by utilizing a broad range of approaches to gain insight into the basic mechanisms underlying social and socially regulated behavior in a range of model systems, but most prominently in cichlid fishes. Our work has established an experimental and conceptual framework for understanding the molecular and neural basis of social behavior – and its evolution – in a naturalistic and organismal context.


        All animals continuously integrate their internal physiological state with environmental events and subsequently choose one action over another to increase their chances of survival and reproduction. These decisions are about obtaining and defending resources (such as food, shelter or mates) or evading danger (such as predator avoidance), and they often take place in a social context, such as dominance hierarchies, mate choice, and/or offspring care. Even though the survival value and evolution of behavioral decisions have been examined in great detail by behavioral ecologists, we are just now beginning to understand the neural and molecular mechanisms underlying these decision-making processes. As biologists have moved beyond the ultimately fruitless debates about the relative contributions of nature and nurture, we have come to understand that behavior – like all phenotypes – is the result of interactions between genetic, environmental, and developmental/epigenetic processes. At the same time, comparative studies have illuminated the behavioral, neural, and molecular underpinnings of behavior, suggesting that – similar to developmental and genetic systems – at least some of the mechanisms regulating behavior across multiple levels of biological organization are conserved in a wide range of species.

Department of Integrative Biology  |  UT Austin-School of Biological Sciences  |  hans@utexas.edu  |  (512) 475-7318