My research explores how ecology drives organismal evolution by integraging functional morphology, comparative methods, theoretical modeling, lab experiments, and field data.
Ecological biomechanics of power amplification in animal movements
In the Patek lab at Duke University, my research focuses on the role of ecology in shaping the biomechanical characteristics of power-amplified movements. Power amplification in biological systems is achieved by a slow process of storing mechanical work as elastic energy, followed by a much faster process of releasing the energy to power the movement. Power amplification enables extreme kinematic output that far exceeds the capacity of actuators (e.g. muscles) alone. It also alleviates the effects of environmental factors on compromising the motor's capacity to generate work. Using trap-jaw ants (ants that use power amplification to perform fast mandible strikes) as the study system, I am currently examining how temperature might affect the dynamics of power amplification and how those effects might impact the jaw-closing kinematics.
Ecology of adaptive trait variation
One of my main research interests is understanding adaptive trait variation from an ecological, cost-benefit perspective. Traits that enhance fitness while simultaneously impose high costs are especially pertinent to this inquiry, as they are often under strong selection. I use autotomy (the voluntary shedding of body parts), one of the most extreme antipredator behavior within animals, as the study system to unravel how ecology drives the variation in autotomy through both natural and sexual selection. Autotomy, or the voluntary shedding of body parts, is an effective yet expensive antipredator strategy used in a diverse array of animals. From a proximal perspective, the occurrence of autotomy involves both relfex and central control, while the propensity with which organisms autotomize their body parts is ultimately regulated by the ecological environment. The complexity of autotomy therefore presents an excellent opportunity to study the evolution of extreme biological adaptations with a multi-disciplinary approach.
Kuo C-Y and Irschick DJ. 2015. Ecology drives natural variation in an extreme antipredator trait: a cost-benefit analysis integrating modeling and field data. Functional Ecology 30: 953-963. pdf
Kuo C-Y, Irschick DJ, Lailvaux SP. 2014. Trait compensation between boldness and the propensity for tail autotomy under different food availabilities in similarly-aged brown anole lizards. Functional Ecology 29: 385-392. pdf
Gillis GB, Kuo C-Y, Irschick DJ. 2013. The impact of tail loss on stability during jumping in green anoles (Anolis carolinensis). Physiological and Biochemical Zoology 86: 680-689. pdf
Evolution and functional morphology
The evolution of morphological diversity is often driven by functional demands associated with the ecological environment. Using the remarkable morphological diversity present in gecko toepads, I am collaborating with Duncan Irschick at the University of Massachusetts Amherst to investigate: (1) the evolutionary relationship between body size and toepad shape diversity, and (2) the roles of evolutionary conservatism and convergence in shaping gecko toepad diversity.
Laborite D, Clemente CJ, Dittrich A, Kuo C-Y, Crosby AJ, Irschick DJ, Federle W. 2016. Extreme allometry of animal adhesive pads and the size limits of adhesion-based climbing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 113: 1297-1302. pdf
Ecology and whole-organism performance
I have a keen interest in whole-organism performance traits and the interactions between those traits and ecology. A good example where ecology and performance may clash is the often substantial weight gain from a regular meal or from carrying developing offspring, as such weight gain can severely compromise the locomotor capacity of an individual. To alleviate such conflict, animal have evolved numerous behavioral and physiological mechanisms, some of which act to reduce the degree of performance impairment following weight gain, while others minimize the fitness impact under suboptimal performance. I am currently working on a review article that summarizes life-history related weight gain and compensation mechanisms in animals. Check back later for more updates!
Kuo C-Y, Gillis GB, Irschick DJ. 2011. Loading effect on jump performance in green anole lizards Anolis carolinensis. Journal of Experimental Biology 214: 2073-2079.
Sheila Patek, Duke University
Al Crosby, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Gary Gillis, Mount Holyoke College
Duncan Irschick, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Simon Lailvaux, University of New Orleans
Daniel Moen, Oklahoma State University
Anthony Russell, University of Calgary