Evolutionary Biology

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Richard Merrill - Behaviour and Speciation (Emmy Noether Group)


Compared to morphological traits we still know very little about the genetics of behavioural adaptations in natural populations. This omission is significant for two major reasons. First, the evolutionary genetics of behaviour may differ to that of morphology. In addition to the action of development, the link between genotype and phenotype for behaviours is also mediated through the nervous system, and its interaction with the environment. Second, behavioural phenotypes are known to be important during adaptation and population divergence. In particular, we now know that behavioural isolation often evolves more rapidly than intrinsic incompatibilities, and therefore plays a key role during the evolution of new species.

Our research focuses on the ecological, genetic and developmental basis of adaptive behaviours that contribute to speciation. We are interested in how behavioural isolation evolves, and how genetic architecture and other factors may influence this process. Our work is currently focused on Heliconius butterflies, which show a striking radiation of warning patterns across the Neotropics often associated with Müllerian mimicry. These warning colour patterns are also used as mate recognition cues and are associated with diverging preference behaviours contributing to varying degrees of assortative mating.

Supported by the DFG Emmy Noether program, research in the group will continue to investigate the genetic basis of divergent preference behaviours in the sympatric species H. cydno and H. melpomene, as well as broaden out across the Heliconius radiation. The ultimate aim is to dissect the molecular basis of preference behaviours to better understand how these phenotypes evolved, and how this has influenced the evolution of new species.

Our work combines long-term field and insectary based projects in the tropics with modern genomic and genetic techniques. Enquires about working in the group, on Heliconius or other organisms, are always welcome. More information about the group can be found at: https://richmerrill.wordpress.com.