Troy G. Murphy
Troy G. Murphy , Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Biology
Ph.D. - Cornell University
B.S. - University of Arizona
Methods for Biological Problem Solving
My lab's research program (Lab Website) spans ecology and evolutionary biology, with an emphasis on social signaling and the evolutionary maintenance of elaborate characters used during animal communication. I combine evolutionary based comparative-studies with field- and aviary-based behavioral studies. My students and I generally work on birds because they are wonderful model organisms for this kind of research, as they display such incredible diversity of sexual dimorphism, ornaments, and mating systems. We also study mating and social behavior in fish in the laboratory, as these systems are tractable and easily manipulated.
The honing of one's hypo-deductive skills should be goal number-one in both science education and scientific practice, as it will lead to sharp science, concise problem solving, and rewarding results.
Most of the lab's research focuses on understanding the evolutionary processes that select for female ornamentation. Although many studies have provided strong empirical support for fitness benefits associated with male ornaments (i.e., usually to impress females), it remains unclear if females also generally benefit from elaborate traits. Because females have been so neglected in studies of behavior and evolution, we have only a rudimentary understanding of selective pressures acting on them. In fact, we know very little about whether elaborate female traits are generally adaptive, and in cases when female traits are used during communication, it remains unclear whether they typically function as mate-advertisement signals, or as indicators of status (i.e., dominance). As such, the field is growing quickly, and new discoveries are rapidly emerging that are shaping the way we look at the process of evolution (see research on how females have been found to use elaborate traits to signal dominance in both goldfinches and orioles). Read more here.
Student Involvement In My Lab
|Students and I working at the Queen's University Biological Station in Ontario Canada, Summer 2010|
Students that join my lab conduct independent research projects, and often turn their project into an honors thesis. Student-based research focuses on understanding evolutionary adaptation or evolutional history of behavioral phenotypes. I work hand-in-hand with students throughout the process of conceptualizing the theoretical framework, conducting the experiment, analyzing the data, and in the end, results are presented at national/international meetings and we publish the work in peer-reviewed journals. Most student-research is on birds (goldfinches, motmots, titmice) and fish (bettas), and many of my students accompany me to the field (often to Canada or to Mexico) for 6-8 weeks of the summer to conduct behavioral work with birds.
When I teach, one of my main goals is to shift students' emphasis from looking for specific answers to asking themselves how the material fits within theoretical expectations. I also emphasize how specific knowledge integrates with other aspects of biology, giving them an important perspective on the interconnectedness of the biological approach. I often use inquiry-based approaches to get students to ask questions, and then help them work out the answers on their own, which provides students with a strong sense of ownership over course material, while also providing a strong knowledge base and analytical skill set.
One of my favorite courses to teach is Animal Behavior. This is the type of course that has the potential to completely change a person's perspective on the world — the power of using evolutionary thinking applied to day-to-day events can be remarkably enlightening for many students — and I am constantly thrilled to see this kind of excitement erupt in many of my students.
Hall, Z., MacDougall-Shackleton, S.A., Osorio-Beristain M., Murphy, T.G. (in press). "Male-bias in song-control system despite female-bias in song rate in the streak-backed oriole (Icterus pustulatus)." In press, Brain, Behavior and Evolution.
Murphy T. G. (2010). "Tail-racket removal increases hematocrit in male turquoise-browed motmots." Journal of Ornithology 151:241-245.
Murphy T. G., Rosenthal M. F., Montgomerie R., Tarvin K. A. (2009). "Female American goldfinches use carotenoid-based bill coloration to signal status." Behavioral Ecology 20:1348-1355.
Murphy T. G., Hernández-Muciño D. , Osorio-Beristain M., Montgomerie R., Omland, K. E. (2009). "Carotenoid-based status signaling by females in the tropical streak-backed oriole." Behavioral Ecology 20:1000-1006.
Murphy T. G. (2008). "Lack of assortative mating for tail, phenotypic condition, or body-size in the elaborate monomorphic Turquoise-browed Motmot (Eumomota superciliosa)." Auk 125: 11-19.
Price J. J., Yunes-Jiménez L., Osorio-Beristain M., Omland K. E., Murphy T. G. (2008). "Sex-role reversal in song? Females sing more frequently than males in the streak-backed oriole (Icterus pustulatus)." Condor 110:387-392.
Murphy T. G. (2007). "Dishonest "preemptive" pursuit-deterrent signal? Why the turquoise-browed motmot wags its tail before feeding nestlings." Animal Behaviour 73: 965-970.
Murphy T. G. (2007). "Racketed-tail of the male and female turquoise-browed motmot: male but not female tail length correlates with pairing success, performance, and reproductive success." Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 61: 911-918.
Murphy T. G. (2006). "Predator-elicited visual signal: Why the turquoise-browed motmot wag-displays its racketed tail." Behavioral Ecology 17: 547-553.
Currently, I am partnering with middle-school classrooms in the Northside Independent School District here in San Antonio to capture, band, and monitor Purple Martins breeding in large nesting colonies. One of the most exciting aspects of this project is that these colonies, made up of large manmade martin condominiums, are located right in the middle of their respective campuses -- and so the students gain a glimpse of nature and science in action as they walk from one class to another. This partnership provides a wonderful opportunity for Trinity faculty and students to share their passion and scientific expertise with kids and teachers at local elementary schools.