Members of the Zuk lab are driven by a passion for behavioral ecology. As a research group, we are broadly interested in sexual selection, and work on a wide range of projects related to sexual behavior, rapid signal evolution, and immune function.

Principal Investigator: Professor Marlene Zuk

Current Postdocs

Justa Heinen-Kay

I am an evolutionary ecologist broadly interested in how phenotypic diversity is generated and maintained in the wild. I’m especially interested in how the environment shapes behavioral, phenotypic, and physiological traits associated with mating. In the Zuk lab, my research is focused on elucidating the factors that contributed to rapid sexual signal loss in Pacific field crickets. Read more about my research here.

Mingzi Xu

I am an evolutionary biologist interested in the evolution and genetics of mating preferences. My research aim to address two questions: what selective pressures drive the evolution of mating preferences, and what genetic mechanisms enable mating preference evolution? I approach these questions by integrating behavioral ecology and evolutionary genetics and genomics in my research.

Current Graduate Students

Mounica Kota

Mounica Kota

My dissertation focuses on understanding how sexual signals evolve in the wild. An animal’s environment can target sexual signals via natural selection or alter the strength and form of sexual selection acting on the signal. To investigate the mechanisms underpinning sexual signal evolution, I capitalize on a novel case of rapid sexual signal loss in the Pacific field cricket Teleogryllus oceanicus, where males have lost the ability to sing. However, males also have gustatory signals in the form of cuticular hydrocarbons. Both signals operate under known natural and sexual selection tradeoffs, which may change with environmental conditions across the crickets’ range. I investigate the role of relevant environmental constraints, the relationship between signaling modalities, and intrinsic signal properties to assess how environmental variation shapes the trajectory of sexual signal evolution. Read more about my work here!

Rachel Olzer

How novel traits are established has long puzzled evolutionary biologists. Scientists are just beginning to examine the role that phenotypic plasticity plays in novel trait evolution, with particular interest in the role of behavioral plasticity in accommodating morphological novelty. Animal communication signals, particularly sexual signals, represent a unique opportunity to understand how behavioral plasticity can facilitate novel trait evolution. While there is a great deal of plasticity in signaling behavior, especially as it relates to mate attraction, we still do not understand why plasticity might facilitate novel trait evolution in some instances, but not others. In my PhD I will examine how plasticity in reproductive behavior can accommodate the establishment and maintenance of novel sexual traits. The recent and rapid evolution of a novel sexual trait in the Pacific field cricket, Teleogryllus oceanicus, provides a unique opportunity to examine plasticity in real-time. In aims one and two we examine the role of socially-mediated plasticity in reproduction. In aim three we examine a potential cost to maintaining that plasticity. With this work we can gain a greater understanding of why evolutionary novelty is common, but not ubiquitous in nature.

Jon Richardson


I am an evolutionary biologist and behavioural ecologist interested in reproductive behaviour and life history trade-offs. My research asks whether changes in behaviour, investment or development can aid or hinder an animal’s ability to cope with poor environments and make the best of a bad situation.

I am a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh working in the Smiseth lab. We study the burying beetle (Nicrophorus vespilloides) which breeds on animal carcasses and provides parental care to its offspring. Some of the themes of my PhD are: how do parents balance the costs of reproduction and survival? How does diet influence reproductive behaviour? And does the behaviour of inbred individuals have consequences for non-inbred individuals? 

Whilst visiting the Zuk lab I will be exploring two problems; firstly, does signal loss have consequences for growth rate, development time or investment to reproduction in the Pacific field cricket (Teleogryllus oceanicus)? And secondly, does a focus on virgin animals have unintended consequences for our understanding of animal behaviour?  

Undergraduate Researchers

Kristine Jecha

Sara de Sobrino

Aaron McCullough

Robin Mullard


Rachel Nichols

Kristin Robinson



Taren Stanley 

Taren Stanley

Liz Wild


Lab Alumni

Graduate Students:

Jessie Tanner, PhD 2018

I'm currently an NSF Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Biology at the Centre for Evolutionary Biology, University of Western Australia. My research in Dr. Leigh Simmons' lab examines the evolution of sexual traits by pre- and post-copulatory selection. I work primarily on the evolution of genital traits in rodents.

I completed my doctoral work with Drs. Mark Bee and Marlene Zuk at the University of Minnesota, where I was an NSF Graduate Research Fellow and Ford Foundation Pre-Doctoral Fellow. My dissertation research primarily focused on constraints on the evolution of acoustic signals by sexual selection. I used both vertebrate and invertebrate systems to answer questions about how multivariate sexual signals are shaped by mate choice, how biotic noise affects the expression of female mating preferences, the capacity of within-individual variation to mask the between-individual variation that is the target of mate choice, and the role of behavior in the establishment of novel phenotypes. Read more about my research here.

Narmin Ghalichi, M.S. 2018

Rebecca Ehrlich, M.S. 2017

My research interests broadly encompass the evolution of animal mating systems, life history theory, and ecoimmunology. I am especially interested in studying trade-offs between disease resistance and sexual selection under real-world environmental pressures. For my masters work, I investigated the influence of climate change on insect reproduction and immune defense through an evolutionary and ecological framework.

Undergraduate Students:


Kirstine Grab, B.S. 2018

During my time in the cricket lab, I worked as a cricket care technician and helped out with different research projects, specifically a project looking at wandering behavior in male crickets and how the rearing environment influenced their behavior across different colonies.  Currently, I'm working as a research assistant at The Wetlands Institute where I spend most of my time working with diamondback terrapins.

Adam Hartman, B.S. 2018

Jake Hjort, B.S. 2019

Marissa Peyer B.S. 2018

In the Zuk lab, I spent two years washing dishes then transitioned into working on a project with Dr. Justa Heinen-Kay for my last two years at the U of M. During this time, we investigated methods of identifying unique cuticular hydrocarbon (CHC) patterns of desiccated crickets through GCMS, with potential implications on how CHC work is done in the field. After completing this project and graduating from the University of Minnesota, I moved to Durham, NC where I am currently attending medical school at Duke University. 

Grace Richmond

Erin Schwister, B.S. 2019

Ellen Urquhart, B.S. 2019

Daina Strub, B.S. 2018