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David W. Pfennig

Caroline H. and Thomas S. Royster Professor

Contact Information

Office: 320 Wilson Hall
Email: dpfennig [at] unc [dot] edu
Office Phone: (919) 962-6958
Lab Phone: (919) 962-3595

Pfennig Lab Website

Research Description

I’m broadly interested in the interplay between evolution, ecology, and development.  My current research focuses on three main topics.

First, I study the causes and consequences of a common feature of development: its tendency to be responsive to changes in the environment.  Although biologists have long known that an individual organism’s appearance, behavior, and physiology can be modified by its environmental conditions, the implications of such developmental plasticity for ecology and evolution are poorly understood. Moreover, the underlying genetic and developmental mechanisms that foster plasticity are unclear.  I seek to understand the impacts of developmental plasticity on diversification and evolutionary innovation, as well as how and why plasticity arises in the first place.

Second, I study the role of competition in generating and maintaining biodiversity.  I’m particularly interested in unravelling whether and how competition promotes trait evolution and the impacts of any such evolution on the formation of new traits and new species.

Finally, I study a striking form of convergent evolution known as Batesian mimicry, which evolves when a palatable species co-opts a warning signal from a dangerous species and thereby deceives its potential predators. Such instances of “life imitating life” provide an ideal opportunity to assess natural selection’s efficacy in promoting adaptation.

In addition to my research interests, I presently serve as Director of the UNC Graduate School’s Royster Society of Fellows, a university-wide, interdisciplinary program aimed at training some of UNC’s best and brightest graduate students.

For more details on my lab and research, please visit my lab page by clicking on the link above.

An individual’s phenotype is not determined solely by its genes; it nearly always depends on an interaction between genes and environment. For example, morphological variation between the spadefoot toad tadpoles pictured here stems largely from differences in diet (these two are same-aged full siblings). The widespread existence of such developmental plasticity raises a number of important questions, including: How do environmental cues alter development? What is the evolutionary significance of developmental plasticity? How and why does such environmental sensitivity evolve in the first place?