Renee A Duckworth
Associate Professor, BIO5 Institute
Associate Professor, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Member of the Graduate Faculty
Primary Department
(520) 626-0734
Research Interest
Dr. Renee Duckworth, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. The ultimate goal of her work is to understand the link between micro and macroevolutionary processes with specific focus on ecological feedbacks and evolutionary diversification. To achieve these goals, she integrates approaches from evolutionary and physiological ecology to quantitative genetic and genomic methods. Her current work uses large-scale field experiments, empirical measures of lifetime fitness and molecular multi-generational pedigree reconstruction to investigate the dynamics of trait evolution in the context of range expansion and species coexistence in passerine birds. Current projects in the lab include the evolution of adaptive introgression, the mechanisms of species coexistence at range margins, the role of adaptive maternal effects in range expansion, and the origin and evolution of animal personality traits.


Duckworth, R. A. (2014). Evolution of genetically integrated dispersal strategies. DISPERSAL ECOLOGY AND EVOLUTION, 83-94.
Badyaev, A., Schwabl, H., Young, R., Duckworth, R., Navara, K., & Parlow, A. (2006). Adaptive sex differences in growth of pre-ovulation oocytes in a passerine bird. PROCEEDINGS OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY B-BIOLOGICAL SCIENCES, 272(1577), 2165-2172.

Maternal modification of offspring sex in birds has strong fitness consequences, however the mechanisms by which female birds can bias sex of their progeny in close concordance with the environment of breeding are not known. In recently established populations of house finches (Carpodacus mexicanus), breeding females lay a sex-biased sequence of eggs when ambient temperature causes early onset of incubation. We studied the mechanisms behind close association of incubation and sex-determination strategies in this species and discovered that pre-ovulation oocytes that produce males and females differed strongly in the temporal patterns of proliferation and growth. In turn, sex-specific exposure of oocytes to maternal secretion of prolactin and androgens produced distinct accumulation of maternal steroids in oocyte yolks in relation to oocyte proliferation order. These findings suggest that sex difference in oocyte growth and egg-laying sequence is an adaptive outcome of hormonal constraints imposed by the overlap of early incubation and oogenesis in this population, and that the close integration of maternal incubation, oocytes' sex-determination and growth might be under control of the same hormonal mechanism. We further document that population establishment and the evolution of these maternal strategies is facilitated by their strong effects on female and offspring fitness in a recently established part of the species range.

Badyaev, A., & Duckworth, R. (2008). Context-dependent sexual advertisement: plasticity in development of sexual ornamentation throughout the lifetime of a passerine bird. JOURNAL OF EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGY, 16(6), 1065-1076.

Male investment into sexual ornamentation is a reproductive decision that depends on the context of breeding and life history state. In turn, selection for state- and context-specific expression of sexual ornamentation should favour the evolution of developmental pathways that enable the flexible allocation of resources into sexual ornamentation. We studied lifelong variation in the expression and condition-dependence of a sexual ornament in relation to age and the context of breeding in male house finches (Carpodacus mexicanus) - a species that develops a new sexual ornament once a year after breeding. Throughout males' lifetime, the elaboration of ornamentation and the allocation of resources to the development of sexual ornamentation depended strongly on pairing status in the preceding breeding season - males that were single invested more resources into sexual ornamentation and changed ornamentation more than males that were paired. During the initial (post-juvenile) moult, the expression of ornamentation was closely dependent on individual condition, however the condition-dependence of ornamentation sharply decreased throughout a male's lifetime and in older males expression of sexual ornamentation was largely independent of condition during moult. Selection for early breeding favoured greater ornamentation in males that were single in the preceding seasons and the strength of this selection increased with age. On the contrary, the strength of selection on sexual ornamentation decreased with age in males that were paired in the preceding breeding season. Our results reveal strong context-dependency in investment into sexual ornamentation as well as a high flexibility in the development of sexual ornamentation throughout a male's life.

Duckworth, R. A. (2006). Aggressive behaviour affects selection on morphology by influencing settlement patterns in a passerine bird.. Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society, 273(1595), 1789-1795.

PMID: 16790412;PMCID: PMC1634784;Abstract:

The importance of behaviours as instigators or inhibitors of evolutionary change remains largely unresolved and this is in part because there are very few empirical examples of how behaviours affect evolutionary processes. By determining the environment of breeding, aggressive interactions over territories have the potential to strongly impact selection pressures experienced by individuals. Western bluebirds (Sialia mexicana) provide a unique opportunity to investigate the evolutionary importance of aggression, since their highly variable breeding habitat favours distinct foraging techniques and they also compete aggressively for nest boxes, a resource that is easy to manipulate. Here, I show experimentally that more aggressive males compete more effectively for territories with a high density of nest boxes and, as a consequence, aggressive and non-aggressive males are sorted into distinct breeding habitats that differ in the strength of selection on morphological traits. Specifically, males with longer tails and tarsi were favoured in open habitats where high agility is required to forage efficiently, whereas in forested habitats, where agility is less important, selection was weak. These results show that aggression can affect selection on a local scale by determining individual settlement patterns. More generally, because territorial interactions are important across a wide variety of taxa, these results suggest that aggressive behaviour has the potential to impact the evolutionary trajectory of many animal populations.

Duckworth, R. A. (2003). Adaptive dispersal strategies and the dynamics of a range expansion. AMERICAN NATURALIST, 172, S4-S17.

In species undergoing range expansion, newly established populations are often more dispersive than older populations. Because dispersal phenotypes are complex and often costly, it is unclear how highly dispersive phenotypes are maintained in a species to enable their rapid expression during periods of range expansion. Here I test the idea that metapopulation dynamics of local extinction and recolonization maintain distinct dispersal strategies outside the context of range expansion. Western bluebirds display distinct dispersal phenotypes where aggressive males are more dispersive than nonaggressive males, resulting in highly aggressive populations at the edge of their expanding range. I experimentally created new habitat interior to the range edge to show that, as on the range front, it was colonized solely by aggressive males. Moreover, fitness consequences of aggression depended on population age: aggressive males had high fitness when colonizing new populations, while nonaggressive males performed best in an older population. These results suggest that distinct dispersal strategies were maintained before range expansion as an adaptation for the continual recolonization of new habitat. These results emphasize similarities between range expansion and metapopulation dynamics and suggest that preexisting adaptive dispersal strategies may explain rapid changes in dispersal phenotypes during range expansion.