“What underlies great science is what underlies great art, whether it is visual or written, and that is the ability to distinguish patterns out of chaos”                                                                         — Diana Gabaldon, author of Outlander


We study the structural and functional development and evolution of fish sensory systems. Our work is focused on the mechanosensory lateral line system, a primitive vertebrate sensory system found in all 30,000+ fishes (and larval and aquatic adult amphibians). The lateral line system detects water flows, which facilitates critical prey detection, predator avoidance, communication, rheotaxis, and navigation. Furthermore, unlike the nose, eyes and ears, which are bilateral sense organs found on the head, the lateral line system is composed of many small sense organs (neuromasts) located in arrays on the skin and in tubular canals on the head, trunk and tail. In bony fishes, canal neuromasts are found within a conserved subset of skull bones on the head and in the trunk canal in the lateral line scales on the body.  Thus, the lateral line system has a dual identity – as a major component of the skull of bony fishes and as an essential sensory system that mediates critical behaviors. An understanding of the role of the lateral line system in behavior will shed light on how fishes may overcome challenges in aquatic environments presented by global change (See: “Sensory Smog“, in Science, 2019).

The two most recent reviews of the morphology, diversity and development of the lateral line system:

  • Webb, JF. 2014a. Morphological diversity, evolution and development of the mechanosensory lateral line system.  In: (Coombs S, and Bleckmann, H. eds) The Lateral Line System. [Springer Handbook of Auditory Research] NY: Springer-Verlag. pp. 17-72.
  • Webb, JF. 2014b. Lateral line morphology and development and implications for the functional ontogeny of flow sensing of fishes. In: Bleckmann H, Mogdans J, Coombs, S. (eds.). Flow Sensing in Air and Water – Behavioural, Neural and Engineering Principles of Operation. pp. 247-270

Work in the Webb Lab has been funded by several National Science Foundation grants (1997-Pres.), two NSF Graduate Research Fellowships, a Franklin Grant (American Philosophical Society), a Lerner Gray Grant (American Museum of Natural History, NYC), an Edward Raney Award from the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, a Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology FGST, a Laura and Arthur Colwin Summer Research Fellowship (Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole), RI NSF EPSCoR, the George and Barbara Young Chair in Biology (URI), and the University of Rhode Island.

Our recent work has been on the developmental and evolutionary sensory biology and ecology of coral reef fishes, cichlid fishes, deep sea fishes, and elasmobranchs. Each taxon has interesting or unique morphological, developmental, and/or behavioral attributes that have allowed us to ask fundamental questions about sensory evolution, development, functional morphology, and behavior. We use multiple methods including histology, SEM, CT/µCT, vital fluorescent imaging, and fate mapping to gain a comprehensive understanding of patterns of lateral line morphology and development.  We have also used DPIV (for analysis of hydrodynamic stimuli), video analysis, and classical fish training (conditioned responses to artificial hydrodynamic stimuli) to study the sensory basis for feeding behavior under different environmental conditions.


We were the first to use CT imaging for the study of the comparative morphology of the swim bladder and ear in live, anesthetized fishes (Webb et al., 2006; 2010). We have used µCT to visualize the morphology of the cranial lateral line canals in cichlid fishes (e.g., Webb, et al., 2014) and other species with interesting lateral line canal phenotypes (see below; Webb, 2014). Ongoing projects involve the quantification of µCT data that will be used for modeling lateral line canal function and the design of artificial lateral line sensors and tools. See our µCT Imaging page.




Our histological investigation of the 3-D configuration of the lateral line canal within the lateral line scales of teleost fishes (Webb and Ramsay, 2017) was selected by Copeia as Best Paper in Ichthyology for 2017.  It showed that the iconic figures found in textbooks and reproduced throughout the literature are not accurate. The diagram here is the consensus configuration of the lateral line canals based on several species of pomacentrids, embiotocids, and pleuronectiforms, which have unspecialized lateral line scales. Abbreviations: llc – lateral line canal, p – pore, plln – posterior lateral line nerve, m – muscle, n-neuromast, s – scale.

Recent Webb Lab News

  • Dr. Webb has been awarded the 2020 CELS Research Excellence Award.
  • The Webb Lab welcomes two new MS students: Jenna O’Del (BS Univ. New Hampshire) and Eman Khwaja (BS Agnes Scott College, GA)
  • PhD student (and NSF Graduate Research Fellow) Aubree Jones has been awarded a 2020 Edward C. Raney Fund Award by the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists [following in the footsteps of Dr. Webb who received this award when she was a graduate student] and a Fellowship of Graduate Student Travel by the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, both to support her dissertation research  – “Best of Both Worlds: Connecting Form and Function of Two Lateral Line Phenotypes within One Species, Ericymba buccata”.
  • Dr. Webb was awarded a Franklin Grant from the American Philosophical Society for her work on digital visualization, quantification and modeling of lateral line canal phenotypes (2020)
  • Dr. Webb gave papers at the 44th Larval Fish Conference (Mallorca, Spain) and the International Congress of Vertebrate Morphology (Prague, Czech Republic) and gave a seminar at the Inter-University Institute of Marine Science (Eilat, Israel) (2019)
  • Dr. Webb spent time in Summer and Fall 2019 at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole as a  Whitman Center Affiliate (visiting scientist).
  • Graduate student Aubree Jones (BS Texas A&M Galveston) has been awarded an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship (2019).
  • Dawn Parry (BS MBio, 2019) received Honorable Mention for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. She completed her Honors Thesis (mentored by Dr. Webb) based on the work she did at NMFS-Woods Hole as a NOAA Hollings Scholar. She is now at Cornell University doing her PhD on whale bioacoustics with full fellowship support from Cornell.
  • Dr. Webb was named Finalist for the 2019 URI Foundation Award for Excellence in Teaching.
  • Dr. Webb became a member of the SEA Education Association Board of Trustees, and is now Chair of its Education Committee (2019).

More Webb Lab News…..

We thank all of our funding sources!!