Virginia Tech® home

2022 | Environmental Influences on Gene Expression and Behavior in Avian Wildlife

Ariel View of Streams

FACULTY SEED GRANT | Global Change Center

Epigenetic Mechanisms Underlying Neurobehavioral Phenotypes

  • Dr. Kendra Sewall, Biological Sciences
  • Dr. David Haak, School of Plant and Environmental Sciences

Anthropogenic habitat modification is both a conservation concern and a ‘natural experiment’ that presents an opportunity to study the mechanisms by which some organisms adjust to rapid environmental change (1). Behavioral shifts are often the first response to changing environments,  but resolving how environmental conditions are transduced into neural and molecular mechanisms that regulate behavior is critical for understanding how some species are able to cope with rapid change, and for predicting the limitations of those adjustments (2–8). 

Changing environmental conditions can favor certain patterns of behavior (aka. personalities, behavioral syndromes, coping styles) (9–16). For example, one form of anthropogenic habitat modification, urbanization, results in wild animals living in suburbs and cities being more territorial and aggressive than their rural counterparts (11,15,15,17–23). Such behavioral tendencies are underpinned by neural patterns and can be defined more precisely as ‘neurobehavioral’ phenotypes (10,24–27). Determining the speed and magnitude of shifts in neurobehavioral phenotypes in response to rapidly changing environmental conditions requires resolving the molecular mechanisms by which genes and the environment interact to shape these stable brain and behavioral traits (28).

Leveraging our characterization of divergent neurobehavioral phenotypes in urban and rural song sparrows, the overarching objective of this proposal is to resolve the degree of phenotypic plasticity in alternative neurobehavioral phenotypes and characterize the contribution of environmentally sensitive gene regulatory mechanisms to variation in these traits. 

Reference citations for project proposal description available upon request.