The Biodiversity Laboratory at Saint Joseph’s University is a truly unique place devoted to the study of animal behavior, evolution, and ecology. To say this lab is unusual would be an understatement as it resembles a small zoo more than a university laboratory. Rather than investigating a single, model organism, we study a wide variety of rare and exotic species not typically found in research labs.
Work in the Biodiversity Lab falls, primarily, into four distinct categories: studies on fish, studies on amphibians, studies on reptiles, and studies on insects (primarily Drosophila).
Our work with fish is focused on understanding shoaling, or grouping, behavior. While groups of fish are commonly referred to as schools, this is not always correct. A school is a group of fish that moves in a coordinated fashion. A shoal, on the other hand, is any grouping of fish. Fish join shoals for a number of reasons, including enhanced access to food and mates, as well as protection from predators. In our lab, we examine the factors that fish utilize when choosing shoalmates, which may include body coloration, pattern, size, shape and shoal composition. In almost all cases, fish shoal with individuals that have features similar to their own. This may lead to benefits associated with the ‘Confusion Effect,’ in which predators have difficulty identifying and attacking an individual within a group of phenotypically similar fish. We have examined shoaling in a number of different species and are now looking at the effect of experience and learning on shoaling behavior.
Our amphibian work focuses on the influence of factors such as temperature, pH, density and pollution on metamorphosis and survival. Metamorphosis in amphibians, which involves changing from a tadpole to an adult, is an incredibly ‘plastic’ process that can vary tremendously in response to changes in the environment. We are currently looking at metamorphosis across a wide variety of amphibians, including the beautiful poison frogs of the tropics. We are interested in the potential effects of environmental changes that may result from pollution or global warming. We also run a yearly project in which elementary school children study metamorphosis in American toads.
Our work with reptiles is truly a mixed bag, but is devoted, primarily, to the study of turtles. Working with the Turtle Survival Alliance we currently house Assurance Colonies of species whose numbers are declining in the wild. We maintain these colonies and catalogue the life history traits (essentially a compilation of behaviors that distinguish one species from another, including feeding behavior, reproductive behavior and growth rates). We are also involved in a project, funded by the Dietrich W. Botstiber Foundation, to study the use of turtles in Chinatown markets in Philadelphia. This work, known as the New Life Program, also involves rescuing individual turtles from the markets and bringing them into the Biodiversity Labs.
In addition to our work with turtles, we have also been involved in a long-term study on the ability of iguanas to recognize people. This work began with studies of Fido, an adult green iguana, and continues now with our newest iguana, Nate.
Our work with Drosophila involves analysis of the genetic and evolutionary bases of sexual behavior. This is actually the work I was hired to do when I first came to Saint Joseph’s University (before I began developing the Biodiversity Laboratories), and of all the species housed in the labs, Drosophila are the best example of a classic model organism. There is a tremendous body of literature on the genetics, development, and molecular biology of Drosophila, accumulated over the 100+ years since Thomas Hunt Morgan first brought these animals into his lab at Columbia University. Our work goes in a number of different directions, from analyzing the effects of mutations on sexual behavior to surveying the species that comprise wild Drosophila communities. Current projects include an examination of interspecific interactions between different species and a project to understand the effects of sleep deprivation on sexual behavior.
Beyond Science ….
Finally, beyond all of the research, the Biodiversity Laboratory is a wonderful place, filled with amazing animals. Tours at the university often include a stop at the lab, and visitors from outside the school are common. More importantly, school groups of all ages visit the lab throughout the year. Children love the animals and seem to gain a new vision of what science means during their visit. We hope that their experiences at the labs generate an excitement about science and the natural world.
Scott McRobert, Ph.D.