Integrative Biology

Back to Listing

PEEC Seminar - Exploring behavioral flexibility in stickleback

Event Type
PEEC Department
May 1, 2019   4:00 - 5:00 pm  
Miles Bensky, PEEC PhD Candidate, Exit Seminar
Alison Bell
Originating Calendar
Integrative Biology - PEEC Seminars

Miles Bensky

PEEC Graduate Student Exit Seminar


Exploring behavioral flexibility in stickleback


Wednesday, April 24, 2019, 4:00 P.M.


Charles G. Miller Auditorium



Abstract: Behavioral flexibility occurs when an animal switches from a previously successful behavior to a new behavior when the environment changes. For example, an animal might start using a new foraging site when an old food site is no longer profitable. Behavioral flexibility might be especially important for animals in rapidly changing environments as it allows individuals to identify new successful behavior patterns under novel conditions. In my dissertation, I studied intraspecific variation in behavioral flexibility from four different angles in threespined sticklebacks. First, I tested the hypothesis that behavioral flexibility is part of an overall suite of traits related to reactivity to changes in the environment. I found that individuals that showed a higher cortisol stress response and that were more reactive to a predatory threat were slower to learn a novel discrimination task, but not necessarily faster to respond when learning conditions changed. Second, I tested the hypothesis that sticklebacks from populations inhabiting different environments may be primed to use different cues within novel learning conditions. When individuals from two populations were trained on a color vs. spatial discrimination task, the two populations excelled on different tasks: fish from one population performed significantly better on the side version than they did on the color version, while the opposite was observed in the other population. Third, I explored the underlying causes of behavioral flexibility by asking whether individual differences in reversal learning performance were more strongly associated with variation in boldness, neophobia and/or inhibitory control. I found that early performance on reversal learning trials was associated with all three behavioral traits, while time to criterion during reversal learning was independent of the other behaviors. Finally, I took advantage of the radiation of sticklebacks to ask whether behavioral flexibility might facilitate adaptation to new environments. I found extensive population-level variation in behavioral flexibility; preliminary analyses suggest that behavioral flexibility is evolving during the stickleback radiation. Altogether these studies contribute to our growing understanding of behavioral flexibility by highlighting the wide range of both intra- and inter-population variation and further elucidating the mechanisms that may drive the maintenance of this variation.


Coffee and cookies will be served in the atrium outside the auditorium beginning at 3:30 p.m.

link for robots only