Doucet Lab Research
Doucet Lab Research

My research interests fall broadly within the fields of evolutionary, behavioural, and tropical ecology. To date, my research has focused primarily on the use of visual signals in sexual communication in birds. I have studied this topic from a variety of perspectives and across different evolutionary scales. I am particulalry interested in visual sensitivity, mechanisms of color production, mechanisms of condition-dependent variation, the signal function of intraspecific variation in color, and the evolution of coloration patterns.

Follow the links below to find out more about research in my lab:

Research Areas
• Behavioral ecology of temperate and tropical birds
• Mechanisms of coloration
• Signal function of sexual ornaments
• Evolution of coloration patterns
• Ecomorphology

Research Methods
• Field work
• Spectrometry
• Laboratory work

Some Past and Ongoing Projects
• Evolution of elaborate ornaments in manakins
• Plumage color in chickadees
• Sexual signals in satin bowerbird

  Research Areas
Behavioral ecology of temperate and tropical birds
A primary goal of our research is to investigate the behavioural ecology of temperate and tropical birds, with a particular emphasis on mating systems and visual communication. The ecology of many tropical organisms remains poorly understood, and birds are no exception to this general pattern. Our research focuses on comparing the reproductive strategies of temperate and tropical birds using a combination of field-based observations and molecular genetic techniques. We complement these long-term behavioral ecology studies of particular species with research on the mechanistic basis and signal function of plumage ornaments as described below.  Our research on tropical birds also places a strong emphasis on natural history observations, as the basic ecology of many species remains undescribed.

Mechanisms of coloration
Investigating mechanisms of color production is another important focus of our research, particularly with respect to plumage coloration in birds. Two primary mechanisms are responsible for coloring bird feathers: pigmentation and reflective feather microstructure. Incredibly, various combinations of these two mechanisms are sufficient to produce the remarkable diversity of plumage colors displayed by birds. Although some types of pigment-based and structural colors are relatively well-understood, many still await further investigation. A sound understanding of these mechanisms is a necessary precursor to elucidating how and why colorful ornaments have evolved in so many animals.

Signal function of sexual ornaments

We are also interested in the signal function of sexual ornaments in birds. Why are so many ornaments used in mate choice or male-male competition? What fitness benefits do individuals stand to gain from basing their decisions on these ornaments? What are the potential costs of bearing these ornaments? The answers to these questions are likely to be as diverse as the number of mechanisms responsible for producing brilliant colors and elaborate ornaments, and part of our research focuses on discovering the signal function of sexual ornaments in a number of different species.

Evolution of coloration patterns
On a broader scale, our research investigates the evolution of coloration patterns in various taxonomic groups, including the evolution of sexual dichromatism. In other words, we are interested in discovering why some animals are so colorful while others are so cryptic. We are also curious about the factors that might influence why certain colors are favored over others. Our work in this area investigates the interplay between visual sensitivity, animal coloration patterns, and both ecological and social factors. Potentially important ecological factors include the color of ambient light, the color of the visual background, and predation pressure. Potentially important social factors include the intensity of sexual selection and the mechanism of sexual selection (Fisherian runaway selection, sensory bias, condition-dependent handicaps, good genes). 

While studying patterns of sexual dimorphism in manakins, I became interested in ecomorphology; that is, how an animal’s morphology is adapted to its environment (habitat, food source, foraging behaviour). Ecomorphology can be investigated at scales ranging from variation among the different age and sex classes of a species to variation among species and species communities. Ecomorphological studies can therefore be useful in addressing a broad variety of evolutionary phenomena such as the evolution of sexual dimorphism, adaptation to ecological niches, interspecific competition and ecological release in species communities, and convergent evolution.  
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  Research Methods
Field work
My research program places a heavy emphasis on field work. In the past, I have worked in Mexico, Australia, and Peru. Much of our ongoing field work takes place in Canada, at Queen's University Biological Station and in Costa Rica, at Santa Rosa National Park. Much of our research is based on population studies of wild birds. This involves catching birds, marking them with unique color-band combinations, and following them throughout their lives to determine how long they survive, who they mate with, and how successful they are at reproducing. At the time of capture, we usually collect DNA samples, morphological data, plumage reflectance data or feathers, and information on health, condition, or parasite loads. We spend many hours in the field observing birds, searching for and sampling nests, recording birds, and setting-up field-based experiments. For much of our field work, we interact closely with another faculty member at the University of Windsor, Dr. Daniel Mennill, as well as with his students.

Because of our interest in visual communication, spectrometry has become an essential tool for our research. We use reflectance spectrometry to measure bird plumage colors and the color of the visual background, and we use irradiance spectrometry to measure the color of ambient light. We collect spectral measurements from both wild birds and museum specimens. We use these spectral measurements to investigate mechanisms of color production, the signal function of variation in color, and the evolution of coloration patterns. Follow this link to learn more about collecting spectral measurements and analyzing spectral data.

Laboratory work 
Our field research is complemented by three main types of laboratory work. First, we use molecular genetic tools for a variety of different tasks. In particular, we use molecular tools to identify the sex of sexually monomorphic birds, to investigate genetic mating systems and determine paternity, and to obtain sequence data for particular genes. Second, we use electron microscopy to identify and characterize the color-producing microstructures of feathers. Third, we use biochemical techniques to determine the pigment composition of feathers. Our colleagues, Dr. Herman Mays, Dr. Matthew Shawkey, and Dr. Kevin McGraw continue to be important collaborators on many studies involving these laboratory techniques.

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  Some Past and Ongoing Projects
Multimodal displays in royal flycatchers
As one of the newest projects in the lab, we are studying the behavioural ecology of royal flycatchers, Onychorhynchus coronatus. These birds are particulalry interesting from the perspective of trying to understand why and how certain signals become co-opted to serve multiple functions. Both male and female royal flycatchers have remarkably colorful crest feathers that can be errected or retracted at will. Males and females display these crests in a broad variety of contexts including mate attraction, intraspecific aggression, and interspecific communication. In some situations, crest displays are accompanied with mesmerising head movements and/or vocalizations. One of my students, Jessica Cuthbert, is currently investigating the signal function of crest displays in royal flycatchers. We are concurrently studying the mating system and biogeography of these unusual birds. 

Evolution of elaborate ornaments in manakinslong-tailed manakin
My dissertation research focused on the evolution of sexual ornamentation in  manakins. My primary goal was to investigate the causes and consequences of variation in plumage ornamentation in one species of manakin, the long-tailed manakin (Chiroxiphia linearis). Long-tailed manakins have a fascinating mating system wherein groups of males gather at lek sites where they establish age-graded dominance hierarchies. The most dominant males (alpha and beta) perform elaborate, dual-male leapfrog displays for females. Despite the cooperative nature of these displays, usually only the alpha copulates with the female. This complex social system appears to be mediated in part by the incredible vocal repertoire of long-tailed manakins. Click here to listen to and read about manakin vocalizations.

Male long-tailed manakins are extremely sexually dichromatic; females are olive-green throughout, while adult males have a carotenoid-based crown patch, a structurally-determined blue mantle, melanin-based body plumage, and elongated central tail feathers. Males also exhibit an unusual pattern of delayed plumage maturation whereby they progress through a series of distinct transitional plumages before assuming definitive (adult) plumage in their fifth year. I am investigating the proximate basis of variation in plumage ornamentation and the signal function of variation within and among age classes of long-tailed manakins. My study site is located in Santa Rosa National Park, in Guanacaste, Costa Rica. I am also investigating geographic variation in plumage coloration among Chiroxiphia manakin and broad patterns of color evolution across manakins. This work is based on data I collected from both museum specimens and wild birds. See my publications page for additional information on this research.

Plumage color in chickadees
Black capped chickadees are sexually monochromatic non-migratory passerines that inhabit much of North America. They live in small winter flocks with stable linear dominance hierarchies. During the breeding season, pairs divide flock home ranges into breeding territories that they vigorously defend from their neighbors through intense song contests. Females prefer high-ranking males as both social and extra-pair copulation partners, and 30% of nests contain extra-pair young. Thus, the mating system of chickadees provides opportunity for sex and status signaling. In this study, we investigated the signaling potential of black-capped chickadee plumage coloration. Our work was part of a long-term study of black-capped chickadees at Queen's University Biological Station.

Our findings suggest that despite their monochromatic appearance, black-capped chickadees are sexually dichromatic; males have brighter white plumage patches and exhibit starker plumage contrast than females. There are also consistent rank-based differences in chickadee plumage. Finally, we have discovered that the realized reproductive success of male black-capped chickadees is can be predicted by aspects of their plumage coloration. See my publications page for additional information on this research.

Sexual signals in satin bowerbirds
I performed my MSc research under the supervision of Dr. Bob Montgomerie in the Department of Biology at Queen's University. My research focused on investigating indicators of male quality in satin bowerbirds with a particular focus on plumage coloration. In this species, males build display structures, called bowers, which they decorate with various blue objects collected from their surroundings or stolen from other males' bowers. Females observe displaying males from within the bower avenue, and after visiting multiple males, will mate with the one they prefer. Females are solely responsible for building a nest and caring for the young. 

My thesis project focused mainly on the iridescent plumage coloration of male bowerbirds. We wanted to determine whether male coloration was related to aspects of male quality, including their bower quality and indicators of health and condition. Our findings suggest that plumage color and bower quality are related in satin bowerbirds. Thus, brighter males build higher quality bowers. We also found that plumage coloration and bower features appear to signal different aspects of male quality. We recently characterized the mechanism responsible for creating plumage iridescence in this species and we are currently investigating the spectral properties of different types of bower decorations. See my publications page for additional information on this research.

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University of Windsor
Last updated: October 2007
All content © S. Doucet unless otherwise indicated.