My education and employment has included training in both Psychology (MA, PhD: Johns Hopkins) and Biology (BSc, MSc: Queen’s; Postdoc: Princeton) Departments. As a result I try to integrate approaches from both fields to understand the mechanisms of behaviour. My research directions are driven by ecological and evolutionary questions. To answer these questions I use methodologies including field work, behavioural psychology, neuroendocrinology and molecular biology.
My research addresses the interaction between neural, endocrine, and perceptual mechanisms and the evolution of animal behaviour. Specifically I am interested in how songbirds integrate environmental information -such as seasonal changes in photoperiod or the courtship song of a mate- and use this information to organize their behaviour in an adaptive way. Thus, I am interested in topics such as i) how birds learn and perceive environmental cues (e.g. birdsong), ii) how these cues are processed by the brain, and how the brain then mediates changes in behaviour and/or reproductive physiology, and iii) how these neural and endocrine mechanisms have been shaped by natural and sexual selection to result in adaptive behaviour.
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, H.E. Watts & T.P. Hahn (In Press) Biological timekeeping: Individual variation, performance, and fitness. In: Integrative Organismal Biology (Eds: L.B. Martin, H.A. Woods & C. Ghalambor) Wiley Scientific
MacDougall-Shackleton, S.A., K.L. Schmidt, A.A. Furlonger, & E.A. MacDougall-Shackleton (2013) HPA axis regulation, survival, and reproduction in free-living sparrows: functional relationships or developmental correlations? General and Comparative Endocrinology. 190: 188-193
Stevenson, T.J., T.P. Hahn, S.A. MacDougall-Shackleton & G.F. Ball (2012) Gonadotropin-releasing hormone plasticity: a comparative perspective. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology. 33: 287-300.
MacDougall-Shackleton, S.A. & Spencer, K.S. (2012) Developmental stress and birdsong: current evidence and future directions. Journal of Ornithology. 153: S105-S117
MacDougall-Shackleton, S.A. (2011) The levels of analysis revisited. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 366: 2076-2085
Spencer, K.A. & S.A. MacDougall-Shackleton. (2011) Indicators of development as sexually selected traits: the developmental stress hypothesis in context. Behavioral Ecology. 22: 1-9.
MacDougall-Shackleton, S.A., T.J. Stevenson, H.E. Watts, M.E. Pereyra & T.P. Hahn (2009) The evolution of photoperiod response systems and seasonal GnRH plasticity in birds. Integrative and Comparative Biology 49: 580-589.
Research in the lab is broadly integrative. We combine field and laboratory studies, and research ranges from population-level studies to individual behaviour to molecular biology.
The main goal is to understand how the mechanisms of behaviour have been shaped by natural selection. We focus on songbirds because of their phenotypic diversity, behavioural complexity and well-studied physiology and neurobiology. Some of our ongoing research projects are described below.
Photoperiodism and seasonal changes in brain and behaviour
Many songbirds exhibit extreme seasonal changes in brain, behaviour and physiology. We explore how changes in photoperiod drive changes in reproductive behaviour and physiology. Topics include
-seasonal changes in GnRH isoforms, and their relation to reproduction
-photoperiod effects on neurogenesis, neuronal recruitment and neuron survival
-photoperiod and hormone effects on food storing
-seasonal changes in singing behaviour and the song control regions of the brain
Response of female songbirds to male song
Female songbirds respond behaviourally and physiologically to male courtship song. We study how variation in song, such as geographic variation or variation in complexity affects these female responses. Female responses are measured behaviourally, in terms of reproductive physiology and activity in specialized regions of the brain. Topics include
-effects of early song learning influences female song preferences
-effects of song learning influence neural responses to song playback
-stress effects on brain development and song learning
Students in my lab have the opportunity to combine field research with use of cutting edge molecular biological techniques to study the behavioural neurobiology of songbirds.
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