As conspicuous members of every biological community, brightly colored animals have fascinated and puzzled us since time immemorial. They have also taught us much about the process of evolution, from Darwin’s early musings about sexual selection to contemporary work on hybrid speciation in mimetic butterflies. In the Morehouse lab, we seek fundamental insights into the evolution of bright coloration, focusing on how animals produce their colors, what they communicate with them, and how their visual systems perceive and process colorful signals. Our research draws from a broad range of techniques, integrating biophotonics, pigment biochemistry, animal behavior, visual ecology, developmental physiology, nutritional ecology and evolutionary genetics.
Animals use a bewildering array of mechanisms to produce color in their tissues, from pigments synthesized de novo to complex crystalline structures that selectively reflect certain wavelengths of light. Even in well studied animal groups, such as birds and fish, much remains unknown regarding how color is produced. We study the optical properties and basic constituents of colored animal tissues using electron and light microscopy, UV-vis microspectrophotometry, optical measurements, physical modeling, and biochemical techniques for pigment identification (see Fig. 1). Insects, spiders and birds are some of our favorite subjects, but we’re always open to looking at other systems.
Color signals are a key component of the umwelt of most higher animals. In fact, many animals have color vision that exceeds our own, with fine color discrimination extending into the UV and deep red. Our research seeks to enter this richer world of color to understand how and why animals use visual signals to communicate. We do this using behavioral assays, manipulations of visual signals, measurements of color patterns, light environments and visual system components, and mathematical modeling of the visual responses of focal species. We are interested in uncovering not only how specific animals communicate with color, but also broader themes in the co-evolution of visual signals and visual systems.
Color signals present unique opportunities to test fundamental evolutionary theory, from how ornaments exaggerate under directional female choice to resolutions of intralocus sexual conflict. Because they often require large quantities of limiting nutritional resources, color signals also compete with other key life history traits during development, making them important players in the evolution of life history strategies. Our research leverages techniques from nutritional ecology, developmental biology, experimental evolution and quantitative genetics to probe the evolutionary dynamics of color traits.
Feel free to email or call if you would like to know more about our research or how you can get involved.
For nearly 15 years, Dr. Morehouse has been studying the traits that males and females use to interact, with a particular emphasis on color traits and the eyes that perceive them. Other recent interests include understanding co-evolutionary dynamics driving molecular interactions between male ejaculates and female reproductive tracts, nutritional ecology, and the evolution of organismal life histories. Prior to becoming an academic biologist, Dr. Morehouse was a salmon fisherman, a farmhand, a sommelier, and a musician.