Dr. Dina Navon, Postdoctoral Fellow

How do complex, interacting behaviours evolve? And which genes are ultimately responsible?

Dr. Dina Navon is currently investigating questions about the genetic architecture of biomechanics in marine and freshwater three-spined stickleback at the BMSC. Her research includes assessing feeding behaviours in juvenile and adult fish using high-speed video. She is co-supervised by Dr. Sean Rogers (U Calgary) and Dr. Tim Higham (UC Riverside), and her fish have completely taken over the lab in the Fluids building at BMSC!

As a biologist with ecological and evolutionary interests that stretch back to a childhood spent on the Massachusetts shore, Dina’s research focuses on how biodiversity is generated. More specifically, she wants to know how complex suites of behaviour evolve as a result of interactions between genes and the environment, and between the different systems in an organism.

Swimming and eating are indisputably essential behaviours, and a precise coordination between them is required for survival. But how can such complex behaviours evolve together, and what genes are controlling them? Using a high-speed camera to capture the feeding behaviour of marine and freshwater stickleback populations, as well as their hybrid offspring, Dina is able to associate genes with behaviours to answer whether these behaviours, and the coordination between them, are evolving when populations invade novel habitats. And if they do, her methods will help tease apart their genetic underpinnings.

Dina has also been evaluating behavioural plasticity in these sticklebacks; asking, do fish from different populations change their behaviour when presented with new types of food? The answer seems to be: sometimes. One population in particular stands out with dramatic results – the fish from Sarita Falls. While Bamfielders know Sarita as a beautiful place to picnic and swim, Dina tells us life isn’t so easy there for a fish. “There aren’t a lot of hiding places, there aren’t a lot of great food sources…it’s a really challenging environment.” This preliminary finding aligns well with predictions that plasticity should be seen more in these challenging environments. “They say that it’s more exciting when things don’t work out, because then you have to figure out why, but…it’s also reassuring when sometimes things just make sense.”

Eager to hear updates on this research? Follow Dina on Twitter @evodevoDina for more on her work, and lively chatter on all things evo/devo and sci-comm.

Dr. Dina Navon earned her doctorate from the University of Massachusetts Amherst studying the evolution of plasticity in African cichlid fishes. Her research interests focus on the ways that various interactions build on one another to produce the stunning array of diversity we see in nature. She is extremely passionate about science communication, outreach, and teaching, having written for several blogs during her tenure at UMass and having taught a graduate-level seminar in science communication for two years.