We are interested in (1) how animals produce multimodal signals, (2) how those signals propagate through different environments, and (3) how the receiver processes complex signals

Black Notebook


What information do multimodal signals convey to the receiver?

 I previously showed that the  intensity of a male cowbird visual wingspread display can modify the attractiveness of his song for females [1]. These findings suggest that male brown headed cowbirds may not be under the typical directional sexual selection as found in many other species, but rather evolution may select for males that possess a range of different signals that can be used during different social contexts. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that we also found that males can vary the fine structure of their songs depending on the social context of their audience [2]. 



How does the environment influence the transmission of multimodal signals?

The habitat through which a signal travels can profoundly influence the efficacy of that signal reaching its intended receiver. In addition to biological environmental factors, scientists are beginning to find that abiotic factors like anthropogenic noise, light pollution, and human-made structures are also altering the propagation of animal signals. For example, I found that the low-frequency, introductory notes of brown headed cowbird song are masked more in urban environments than in non-urban habitats [3]. This could have profound consequences for this species as these low-frequency notes drive mate-choice. Similarly, in a new study we also found that different ambient lighting conditions and background substrate could ultimately change the perception of cowbird plumage across different females [4]. This may have implications for which males are selected for as potential mates depending on the signaling environment.

Forest Landscape


Does receiver multimodal sensory processing alter selection on multimodal signals?

We know relatively little about how receivers might vary in their sensory filtering of multimodal signals. This is a particularly important gap in the fields of animal communication and sexual selection because differences in female multimodal sensory filtering could underlie between-female variation in mating preferences [5]. I found that female multimodal sensory filtering could change her preference for male multimodal signals [6].  Furthermore, we also found that there was a positive relationship between auditory temporal resolution and visual temporal resolution [7]. This may indicate that an underlying factor, such as body condition or age, may affect sensory processing across modalities in similar ways. Taken together, these findings suggest that females vary in their sensory capacities across multiple modalities and that this can affect their preferences for male mating signals.