Princeton University, Princeton New Jersey, USA
Sarah Kocher integrates methods from many different areas of biology to study the evolution of animal behavior. She received her Ph.D. in Genetics from North Carolina State University with Drs. Christina Grozinger and Trudy Mackay, where she studied the underpinnings of queen-worker interactions in honey bees. As a postdoc at Harvard with Naomi Pierce and Hopi Hoekstra, she began to explore the genetic and ecological factors shaping variation in social behavior in halictid bees.
Natural variation can help us understand how ecological and evolutionary dynamics shape complex traits. I study the forces driving variation in social behavior across multiple levels of biological organization, from molecular and physiological mechanisms underlying individual behavior to the ecological and genetic mechanisms influencing social evolution. Halictid bees harbor extraordinary variation in social behavior. They span the full spectrum of sociality, from solitary to eusocial, making them an ideal model for studying the evolution of this trait. I have developed resources for this system to study (1) the genetic basis of social behavior, (2) the ecological factors influencing sociality, and (3) the interplay of genes and ecology in social evolution. My work has identified key ecological constraints that can shape variation in social behavior as well as several genetic changes associated with the evolution of eusociality both within and between species. Strikingly, many of these genes have been associated with other forms of social behavior in insects and vertebrates, including autism spectrum disorder in humans. These results suggest that the genes underlying behavioral variation in halictids may also shape social behaviors across a wide range of taxa. Few systems exist where a large number of closely related species exhibit repeated, convergent evolution of a focal trait, yet it is through this lens that the mode and tempo of phenotypic evolution is most likely to come into focus.
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