ROLE OF DIET AND MICROBIOME IN SHAPING HOST RESPONSES TO PARASITISM
Nutrition is critical to the immune system and can influence how hosts respond to parasites. Shifts in diet can alter host physiology and energetics, which in turn can shape host-parasite interactions. Shifts in diet can also correspond with shifts in the gut microbiome, which regulates multiple aspects of host health, including metabolism and the development of the host immune system. I am investigating how diet quality and gut microflora affect interactions between box-nesting birds and the parasitic nest fly (Protocalliphora sialia), which produce larvae that feed on nestling blood and can have sublethal effects on offspring.
Adult blowfly (P. sialia)
DISEASE-MEDIATED PARENTAL EFFECTS
Emerging infectious agents pose a threat to both humans and wildlife. Individuals, populations, and species vary in their ability to resist and tolerate pathogens. Understanding the factors that contribute to variation in disease susceptibility is important because the number of susceptible hosts in a population can impact disease transmission, distribution, and persistence. While it is well established that genetic factors and conditional state can shape how individuals respond to infection, relatively little is known about the role of parental effects in shaping individual responses to disease. Infection can have persistent effects on the physiology and behavior or parents, which could shape the developmental environment of offspring. Thus, disease-mediated parental effects are a likely, but largely unexplored, mechanism contributing to individual variation in disease susceptibility. I am investigating how parental disease history can impact offspring variation in immune responses and disease susceptibility. I am also examining several potential behavioral and physiological mechanisms through which parents can shape offspring phenotype in response to infection.
BEHAVIORAL AND PHYSIOLOGICAL RESPONSES TO SOCIAL CUES OF DISEASE
Understanding the factors that contribute to individual variation in disease susceptibility and disease transmission is a critical first step in understanding how diseases spread through populations. My dissertation work was focused on understanding the strategies that social vertebrates use to respond to and prepare for infection. I investigated how infection and perceived infection risk alter behavioral, nutritional, and physiological responses relevant to disease susceptibility and transmission in songbirds.
Our work was featured in The Atlantic !
PHYSIOLOGICAL EFFECTS OF CAPTIVITY
Wild organisms are often brought into captivity for conservation purposes, such as captive breeding programs. However, in some species, captivity results in weight loss and increased stress hormone production. Additionally, some species exhibit immunopathology and susceptibility to opportunistic infections in captive conditions. Despite this, there is little consensus on how captivity impacts stress hormone production and immune responses. To address this, I examined how captivity influenced stress endocrinology and immune responses in house sparrows. This work demonstrated that captivity can have long-lasting effects on the physiology of house sparrows. The next logical step in this line of research is to investigate what aspects of captivity (diet, housing type, etc.) contribute to changes in physiology. Identifying the factors that contribute to captivity-induced changes in physiology may help researchers and captive breeding programs design an environment that alleviates the behavioral and physiological effects often associated with bringing wild organisms into captive settings.