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Research in the Webster lab focuses primarily on the evolutionary causes and consequences of variation in reproductive behavior. Much of this work examines how ecological and social constraints affect individual reproductive strategies, how the process of sexual selection shapes male sexual signals, and how sexual selection influences divergence between populations. Specific projects are summarized below. 

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Ecological Variability and Reproductive Strategies of Migratory Birds 

Migratory birds typically travel vast distances to breed each year, and often face unpredictable ecological conditions upon arrival at their breeding grounds. The behavioral mechanisms by which individuals adjust their reproductive effort to cope with these conditions are key to their success, and are central to both population viability and long-term evolution of life history strategies. We are exploring these mechanisms to gain a better understanding of how ecological factors shape individual decision-making, how behavioral plasticity might mitigate the effects of on-going climate change, and how conditions on the wintering grounds carry-over to affect breeding behavior.

Learn more, see Publications...

amerwarblers


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Male with petal

Flexible Sexual Signaling in Australian Fairy-Wrens

The behaviors and signals used by males to obtain mates are extremely variable, yet the mechanisms underlying this plasticity remain enigmatic. We are adopting an integrative approach to better understand the mechanisms and function of sexual signals in the red-backed fairy-wren, an Australian bird in which males can breed in bright nuptial plumage or in brown female-like plumage. In addition, in this study we are also exploring the reasons why females frequently copulate with extra-pair males, the effects of social structure on their ability to do so, and the role of song in this complex avian social system.

Learn more, see Publications...

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Sexual Signals, Divergence and Speciation

Sexual selection is often thought to lead to rapid divergence in sexual signals between populations, yet the evidence supporting this idea is scant and the mechanisms are poorly understood. Moreover, some evidence suggests that sexual selection may often hinder divergence by promoting introgression of sexual signals across taxonomic boundaries. We are exploring the behavioral mechanisms by which sexual selection may lead to divergence or introgression in Australian fairy-wrens and also North American warblers.

Learn more, see Publications...