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Troy Murphy

2004 - 2005 CSIP Fellow

Research Interest:
Neurobiology and Behavior

My interests are in the adaptive value of behavior-- how natural selection (NS) has molded animal behavior in small steps to create what we see today. The neat thing about teaching the evolution of animal behavior is that it allows you to take the lesson on NS to a much deeper level. Although the basics of NS are easy to grasp (e.g. giraffes with longer necks can reach the leaves no one else can), the study of behavior challenges the student to consider how NS can create diversity and flexibility in behavioral responses. Unlike the giraffe, which is stuck with a seven-foot neck, many animals are able to switch between different behaviors depending on the environmental conditions. That is, an animal can 'decide' the best behavior based on the social environment (do I fight hard, or act submissive when I meet an opponent of greater fighting ability), or, for example, an animal can base a 'decision' on predator abundance (do I maintain constant vigilance, or do I snooze for a bit). Such 'decision rules' are what NS acts upon. Any variation in how quickly, or how likely an individual is to switch from behavior A to B is subject to selection, and when one considers the variety of reactions an animal has to the diversity of environments it may encounter, the amazing power of NS becomes apparent.

By using behavior as a tool to teach NS, I will be able to stress the INDIVIDUAL variation that we see in nature. This is something that is almost totally ignored in everyday life. People like to categorize animals into groups, and expect all individuals of a species to be the same. Nothing could be further from the truth! One of my goals as a CSIP fellow is to use individually marked individuals in behavioral experiments so that students can appreciate what differences really exist. As a conservation side note, I believe that as students learn to identify individuals, they also learn to identify with the animals, and this connection has long lasting effects when it comes to protecting species and proper treatment of the animals and their environment.







Copyright 2006 CSIP, Cornell University