Our research is currently focused on the evolutionary ecology and genetics of mate choice. Supported by the DFG Emmy Noether program, we are specifically attempting to dissect the molecular basis and evolution of visual mate recognition in Heliconius butterflies. Relative to morphological traits, the genetics of behavioural differences observed in nature have not been well characterized. This is especially true for behaviours that contribute to reproductive isolation. However, these behaviours, such as assortative mate preferences, are known to evolve rapidly during population divergence and are especially important during the evolution of new species.
We want to know how behavioural isolation evolves, and how genetic architecture and other factors may influence this process. To address these questions we are working with 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.
Our work combines long-term field and insectary based projects in the tropics with modern genomic and genetic techniques. A major hurdle for behavioural genetics is the ability to accurately phenotype large numbers of individuals and we are developing methods to efficiently quantify visual attraction. We are currently employing these methods, along side quantitative trait loci (QTL), expression and population genetic analyses.
Another ongoing project in the lab concerns the role sexual conflict in driving ecological diversification. In particular, we interested in how male attraction to warning patterns may reduce female fitness, and perhaps promote the evolution of novel warning signals. Finally, we are also exploring the genetic basis of differences in genitalia.