integrative organismal biology in a changing world


We take an integrative approach to understand how the environment—both social and ecological—influences social behavior through empirical studies that combine ecology and evolution with those of underlying molecular, neural and neuroendocrine mechanisms. Our work is grounded in mathematical theory, and we use modeling and comparative approaches to generate and test novel hypotheses. We study a variety of terrestrial vertebrate and invertebrate systems (including birds, reptiles, mammals and insects) on every continent except Antarctica, as well as a number of aquatic organisms (including crustaceans). 

We study the causes and consequences of sociality and the evolutionary responses and behavioral, physiological and molecular adaptations that both social and non-social organisms use to cope with environmental change. Although we emphasize studies of cooperative breeding and the evolution of complex societies, we study a variety of social behaviors ranging from parental care to mate choice. And by studying species living in environments that have experienced climatic variability for many generations, we seek to understand not only how animals cope with ecological stressors and have adapted over evolutionary time to deal with unpredictable environmental changes, but also how organisms are likely to respond to increased environmental uncertainty resulting from anthropogenic climate change. Ultimately, our goal is to develop a synthetic understanding of how environmental change has influenced the evolution of social living and adaptive coping by taking an integrative approach to study a diversity of organisms living in a range of habitats across the globe.

To achieve this, we examine how the environment (ecological and social) influences the genotype, phenotype, and ultimately fitness. We take an evolutionary perspective in considering how the environment has shaped genetic and phenotypic variation within populations and species, but also think about the environmentally-responsive portions of the genome (epigenetic variation) and phenome (hormonal and behavioral variation) to examine how plasticity evolves.

past systems

current systems

World Map

house sparrows 

burying beetle



burying beetles





marine iguana



snapping shrimps

marine igaunas


Egernia lizards

pebble mice


mole rats


social evolution

causes and consequences of sociality

Work in cooperatively breeding starlings, weavers, wasps, pebble mice and burying beetles examines how unpredictable climate variation influences the evolution of animal societies, including its effects on intraspecific cooperation as well as intra- and interspecific competition.

environmental uncertainty and social evolution

We are examining the evolution of social diversity in snapping shrimps, lizards and birds by quantifying life history variation, assessing interspecific differences in social organization among closed related species and exploring the key evolutionary transitions among social states using phylogenetic comparative methods.

evolutionary transitions in social organization

molecular and neural mechanisms of social behavior

We are studying the mechanistic bases of caste differentiation, social phenotypes and social decision making in snapping shrimps, burying beetles and lizards by examining role- and population-specific patterns of gene expression, signatures of genetic and epigenetic variation, brain architecture and structural variants in the genome.

We are studying how competition influences the evolution of social signaling and patterns of sexual dimorphism in starlings and pebble mice. We are also examining how social living influences the evolution of genome architecture by studying the relationships among social organization, genome size and transposable elements in snapping shrimps and mole rats.

phenotypic and genotypic consequences of sociality

cooperation and ecological dominance

We are exploring how cooperative behavior in birds, burying beetles and snapping shrimps influences competitive ability against conspecifics, niche breadth and range expansion, ecological generalism vs. specialism and ecological dominance.


environmental coping

behavioral, physiological and molecular adaptations to global change

adaptation along environmental gradients

We are examining stress physiology, immune function, color evolution and patterns of genetic and epigenetic variation in populations of starlings along temperature and precipitation gradients in Africa.  We are also studying social variation (cooperation and conflict) along altitudinal gradients in Asian burying beetles, and along temperature gradients in Australian mice.

We are studying the behaviors and genomic mechanisms that underlie local adaptation in burying beetles. Our focus is on the role of structural variants (inversions, copy number variants and transposable elements) in the evolution of behavioral polymorphisms (reproductive timing and cooperation) and supergenes that characterize population-level differences despite high gene flow.

genome architecture and local adaptation

epigenetics and adaptive plasticity

We are examining how developmental conditions influence social phenotypes, stress physiology and fitness later in life, and we are exploring DNA methylation as one potential mechanism underlying this relationship in starlings. Although we emphasize the vertebrate stress axis, we also look globally at patterns of DNA methylation across the entire genome.

Using game theory and simulation modeling we are exploring the evolution of strategies to cope with environmental uncertainty.  We are also developing a framework that predicts evolutionary responses to environmentally-driven fluctuating selection, and using it to explore the evolution of physiological coping mechanisms, as well as their genetic and epigenetic architectures.

a framework for environmental coping


© 2002-2024  |  Dustin R. Rubenstein