Dr. Lacey's research interests include behavioral ecology, and population and evolutionary biology.
Specifically, Dr. Lacey studies subterranean rodents to identify the causes and consequences of variation in mammalian social behavior. She combines field studies of behavior, ecology, and demography with genetic analysis of kinship and population structure.
Ecological Causes of Sociality
By comparing two genera of subterranean rodents, Ctenomysand Spalacopus, Dr. Lacey is testing hypotheses proposed to explain explain group living among mammals.
Ctenomys includes solitary and social species, making this genus ideal for exploring behavioral divergence in closely related taxa. Comparisons between group-living Ctenomysand Spalacopus provide opportunities to identify factors that favor behavioral convergence across larger taxonomic and geographic distances.
Marking rodents in the field.
Genetic Consequences of Sociality
Few studies have addressed the role of social behavior in shaping patterns of genetic diversity. Dr. Lacey uses selectively neutral and non-neutral markers to characterize genetic variation in Ctenomys and Spalacopus.
By combining genetic analyses with detailed behavioral and demographic data, she is generating new insights into the effects of social behavior on genetic diversity in vertebrates.
Dr. Lacey: Q&A
Why did you decide to become a scientist?
I'm not sure that I "decided" - it was more a process of discovering that I could make a career out of what I already knew I wanted to do - observe animals and their behavior. The breakthrough moment came in high school, when I took freshman biology. The instructor for the course, a woman named Laine Gurley, was an animal behaviorist who really worked to engage students in that subject. That was all it took - it was her mentorship that showed me that a research career in animal behavior was possible.
What led you to the questions you are now investigating in your research?
I got hooked on subterranean rodents as an undergraduate at Cornell (hint to IB undergrads: take advantage of those research opportunities!). While there, I worked as a research assistant studying one of the more unusual mammals around - the naked mole-rat. By the time I finished up and moved on to grad school, the team that I had worked with had developed a number of hypotheses to explain why naked mole-rats are so extremely social.
I became interested in using other, independently evolved examples of sociality in subterranean rodents to test the generality of those hypotheses. That idea led me to tuco-tucos, cururos, and some fantastic areas of South America. In addition to providing opportunities to test ideas developed for mole-rats, these South American species are very interesting in their own right and can easily occupy several research careers.
How does your research affect your classroom and/or lab?
At the graduate level, I really push my students to do field work and I am supportive of studies that focus on little-known species. My students' projects are all question driven but, if the most appropriate species for exploring those questions happen to be non-model systems, that's fine. This reflects both my own "Jane Goodall tendencies" and my position in theMVZ, which is built upon the supposition that natural history studies are essential.
At the undergraduate level, I hope that I am able to instill in students some of my enthusiasm for behavior, mammals, and field research. Two of the three courses that I teach (behavioral ecology, mammalogy) have substantial lab components and I try to include as many hands-on activities and field trips as I can. During my career, I have benefitted greatly from my interactions with three teachers/mentors (at the high school, undergraduate, and postdoctoral levels) and I hope that I can pass along some of what I gained from those individuals to the students that I encounter.
What do you enjoy most about your research?
Two things: (1) being the first person to figure out what an animal does and why and (2) working in the field, meaning being out there under all kinds of conditions to study animals in their world. To me, there's incredible satisfaction in hiking several miles or waiting out a bad storm or camping under primitive conditions to learn something new about the behavior of an animal in its natural environment.
For more information, visit:
September / October 2006