Renee A Duckworth

Renee A Duckworth

Associate Professor, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Member of the Graduate Faculty
Associate Professor, BIO5 Institute
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.


Nolan, P. M., Duckworth, R. A., Hill, G. E., & Roberts, S. R. (2000). Maintenance of a captive flock of house finches free of infection by Mycoplasma gallisepticum. Avian Diseases, 44(4), 948-952.

PMID: 11195652;Abstract:

Since the beginning of an epidemic of conjunctivitis in wild house finches caused by Mycoplasma gallisepticum (MG), all captive colonies established by capturing free-ranging house finches from the eastern population have also either been infected at the time of capture or developed infection shortly after capture. In an attempt to avoid this infection in captive flocks being maintained for studies of the finches' behavior and ecology, we compared two different flock management strategies and were able to prevent the development of mycoplasmal conjunctivitis with one of the strategies. Single-sex flocks were built by introducing only seronegative wild-caught birds showing no clinical signs of conjunctivitis and covering their outdoor flight cages with netting to prevent interaction with other wild birds although only the female flocks were initially treated with a 6-wk course of tylosin tartrate (0.3 mg/ml). The female flocks never developed conjunctivitis although the disease did develop in the male flocks. Furthermore, serologic assessments of the healthy flock by serum plate agglutination assays for MG indicated that the females remained free of MG infection in the final 7 wk of the study, during which they were unmedicated. We conclude that any low-level MG infection not diagnosed by the initial test for seroconversion was cleared by the prolonged drug treatment.

Duckworth, R. A. (2013). Epigenetic inheritance systems act as a bridge between ecological and evolutionary timescales. Behavioral Ecology, 24(2), 327-328.
Badyaev, A., Hill, G., Beck, M., Dervan, A., Duckworth, R., McGraw, K., Nolan, P., & Whittingham, L. (2003). Sex-biased hatching order and adaptive population divergence in a passerine bird. SCIENCE, 295(5553), 316-318.

Most species of birds can lay only one egg per day until a clutch is complete, and the order in which eggs are laid often has strong and sex-specific effects on offspring growth and survival. In two recently established populations of the house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) in Montana and Alabama, breeding females simultaneously adjusted the sex and growth of offspring in relation to their position in the laying order, thereby reducing the mortality of sons and daughters by 10 to 20% in both environments. We show experimentally that the reduction in mortality is produced by persistent and sex-specific maternal effects on the growth and morphology of offspring, These strong parental effects may have facilitated the rapid adaptive divergence among populations of house finches.

Duckworth, R. A., & E., L. (2009). Evolution of genetic integration between dispersal and colonization ability in a bird. Evolution, 63(4), 968-977.

PMID: 19154391;Abstract:

Discrete behavioral strategies comprise a suite of traits closely integrated in their expression with consistent natural selection for such coexpression leading to developmental and genetic integration of their components. However, behavioral traits are often also selected to respond rapidly to changing environments, which should both favor their context-dependent expression and inhibit evolution of genetic integration with other, less flexible traits. Here we use a multigeneration pedigree and long-term data on lifetime fitness to test whether behaviors comprising distinct dispersal strategies of western bluebirds - a species in which the propensity to disperse is functionally integrated with aggressive behavior - are genetically correlated. We further investigated whether selection favors flexibility in the expression of aggression in relation to current social context. We found a significant genetic correlation between aggression and dispersal that is concordant with consistent selection for coexpression of these behaviors. To a limited extent, individuals modified their aggression to match their mate; however, we found no fitness consequences on such adjustments. These results introduce a novel way of viewing behavioral strategies, where flexibility of behavior, while often aiding an organism's fit in its current environment, may be limited and thereby enable integration with less flexible traits. © 2009 The Author(s).

Duckworth, R. A. (2009). The role of behavior in evolution: A search for mechanism. Evolutionary Ecology, 23(4), 513-531.


Behavior has been viewed as a pacemaker of evolutionary change because changes in behavior are thought to expose organisms to novel selection pressures and result in rapid evolution of morphological, life history and physiological traits. However, the idea that behavior primarily drives evolutionary change has been challenged by an alternative view of behavior as an inhibitor of evolution. According to this view, a high level of behavioral plasticity shields organisms from strong directional selection by allowing individuals to exploit new resources or move to a less stressful environment. Here, I suggest that absence of clear mechanisms underlying these hypotheses impedes empirical evaluation of behavior's role in evolution in two ways. First, both hypotheses focus on behavioral shifts as a key step in the evolutionary process but ignore the developmental mechanisms underlying these shifts and this has fostered unwarranted assumptions about the specific types of behavioral shifts that are important for evolutionary change. Second, neither hypothesis provides a means of connecting within-individual changes in behavior to population-level processes that lead to evolutionary diversification or stasis. To resolve these issues, I incorporate developmental and evolutionary mechanisms into a conceptual framework that generates predictions about the types of behavior and types of behavioral shifts that should affect both micro and macroevolutionary processes. © Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008.