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Lauren O'Connell is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology at Stanford University. She studies amphibians to learn how animals adapt their behavior and physiology to changing environments. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin and then started her own lab at Harvard University as a Bauer Fellow before joining the Stanford faculty in 2017. Projects in the lab include investigating parent-offspring interactions and the physiology of chemical defenses in poison frogs.
Many animals, including humans, need navigation skills for finding mates and food, or when returning home for shelter and to care for offspring. Successfully navigating the environment requires the brain to be capable of learning and remembering specific features of the environment. In mammals, males tend to have better spatial memory, and for decades, scientists have explained this as a necessity for males to navigate over larger areas in search of mates. However, this hypothesis has never been directly tested, and other researchers have recently suggested that male superiority in spatial abilities might be a side-effect of testosterone. Rainforest frogs will be used to test between these alternative hypotheses. In contrast to mammals, frogs have both the species where males roam larger rainforest areas and species where females have larger home ranges than males. Potential sex differences in navigational ability will be measured across a range of species in the field by tracking their ability to return home after displacements. Then, standardized behavioral assays will be used in the lab to detect any sex differences across various species and identify the brain regions used for spatial memory. Finally, the neuroanatomy of the amphibian hippocampus will be investigated to determine if frogs use similar or different brain mechanisms for navigation compared to mammals. Comparing these mechanisms will shed light on the evolution of spatial capabilities in animals, including ourselves. These research activities will be integrated into education by collaborating with Stanford undergraduates and Cañada Community College students to perform behavior experiments.
Geovanni Farina, Quito, Ecuador
South American poison frogs are brightly colored and highly toxic, advertising their unpalatabilily to potential predators. Poison frogs do not make these toxins themselves, but instead acquire toxins from the ants and mites they consume in their diet. Although scientists have long known that poison frogs accumulate toxins from their diet, how the frogs accumulate the toxic chemicals is unknown. The goal of this research is to understand how poison frogs accumulate toxins from the gut through the liver and to the skin for storage. Describing this process will increase our knowledge of how animals have evolved special physiological mechanisms to acquire new resources from their environment. As many of these toxins and other frog chemicals are small molecules similar to many pharmaceutical drugs, understanding how poison frogs transport these chemicals may inform more generally how this process is different from other animals (including mammals) cannot uptake these compounds. This research will provide learning experiences to all age groups in both the United States and in Ecuador, where fieldwork on poison frogs is conducted. Research will be incorporated into science K-12 classrooms through the Little Froggers School Program, which teaches children about ecology and evolution. High school biology teachers will be involved in fieldwork in Ecuador and will incorporate their research findings into their science curriculum. This research will also involve training of undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral students in chemistry, ecology, proteomics, and bioinformatics.
Does the convergent evolution of pair bonding across vertebrates rely on similar neural mechanisms? Social bonds, such as pair bonds, are critical for mental health. In order to identify generalizable and thus translatable principals, we are studying the underlying mechanisms of pair bonding across phylogenically diverse taxa, including butterflyfish, poison frogs, skinks, quail, and voles. This project re-traces the deep, ~450 million years of evolutionary history of vertebrate pair bonding and aims to identify fundamental neural principles that might inform the human condition.
Palo Alto, CA
Ecology and Evolution
The O'Connell lab studies how genetic and environmental factors contribute to biological diversity and adaptation. We are particularly interested in understanding (1) how behavior evolves through changes in brain function and (2) how animal physiology evolves through repurposing existing cellular components.<br/><br/>Behavior<br/>(1) How do neonates communicate nutritional need to parents? How do parents interpret the cries of their infants? Communication between parents and offspring is required for survival in altricial animals, like mammals (including humans), birds, and some amphibians. Yet we understand very little about the co-evolution of parent-offspring communication from a mechanistic perspective. We are studying the neural basis of parent-offspring communication in poison frogs species where tadpoles beg mothers for meals. <br/>(2) How do poison frogs navigate their environment ? Poison frogs transport their tadpoles from the leaf litter to pools of water. In some species, mothers place tadpoles individually in small plants and then return to feed each tadpole every few days for several months. These behaviors are energetically expensive and cognitively demanding, as not only do frog parents need to remember where these pools are located, but some moms frequently return to feed their tadpoles. We are investigating the neural basis of species differences in spatial cognition as a function of sex differences in parental behavior. <br/>(3) Does the convergent evolution of pair bonding across vertebrates rely on similar neural mechanisms? Social bonds, such as pair bonds, are critical for mental health. In order to identify generalizable and thus translatable principals, we are studying the underlying mechanisms of pair bonding across phylogenically diverse taxa, including butterflyfish, poison frogs, skinks, quail, and voles. This project re-traces the deep, ~450 million years of evolutionary history of vertebrate pair bonding and aims to identify fundamental neural principles that might inform the human condition.<br/><br/>Physiology<br/>(1) How does variation in diet and habitat influence poison frog toxicity? Some poison frog species carry toxic chemicals to avoid predation. Poison frogs do not make their own toxins, but rather sequester toxins from the ants and mites in their diet. Thus, the frogs' ability to defend themselves is tightly linked to their environment. We are studying the trophic ecology of poison frog toxicity by linking together information about habitat, diet, and toxins across many populations and species. <br/>(2) How do frogs sequester toxic small molecules from their diet to serve as chemical defenses? Poison frogs have developed special physiological mechanisms that allow them to uptake and store lipophilic alkaloids from their diet. To accomplish this, they need proteins for alkaloid transport throughout the body and modifications to ion channels that allow toxin resistance. We are studying the evolution of toxin sequestration from an organismal physiology perspective to characterize the toxin uptake system in poison frogs.