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Linking Theory and Empirical Data to Understand the Evolutionary Ecology of Foraging and Mating Behavior

J. Colton Watts, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Natural and sexual selection provide a framework for understanding patterns of trait evolution and the ecological processes that traits mediate. However, the expected evolutionary and ecological outcomes of selection are often difficult to predict a priori. Formal theoretical models are therefore helpful in linking hypotheses about the dynamics of selection to empirical observations of evolutionary and ecological outcomes. My research leverages complementary theoretical and empirical approaches to understand the role of selection in the evolution of animal behavior, and how behavioral evolution feeds back to influences other aspects of ecology and evolution. One component of my research focuses on the adaptive significance of daily rhythms of foraging behavior. I developed a general model predicting the daily patterns of foraging behavior that optimally balance energetic gains against predation risk. My model analysis suggests that daily rhythms may represent a general solution to the tradeoff between foraging and predation risk and, by parameterizing my model using an orb-weaving spider as a case study, I demonstrated that the model predictions are consistent with observed rhythms of foraging behavior under natural conditions. My research has also considered how the evolution of mate choice behavior contributes to intraspecific variation in sexual traits. Using a wolf spider as a model system, I found that sexual selection caused by mate choice varied little among populations and did not explain among-population differences in male courtship displays. This consistency in mate choice behavior among populations motivated me to reevaluate the widely accepted role of population density in shaping sexual selection. By explicitly linking the mate sampling strategies that maximize female fitness in different environments to sexual selection on male traits, I showed that the predicted density dependence of sexual selection depends critically on the details of how mate sampling behavior has evolved. My research collectively demonstrates the insights that can be gained from approaching long-standing issues in evolutionary ecology through complementary theoretical and empirical approaches.

Subject Area

Biology|Ecology|Evolution and Development

Recommended Citation

Watts, J. Colton, "Linking Theory and Empirical Data to Understand the Evolutionary Ecology of Foraging and Mating Behavior" (2020). ETD collection for University of Nebraska-Lincoln. AAI28002970.