Sensory Biology and Development of Fishes

“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

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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).

Funding for work in the Webb Lab has come from the National Science Foundation (1997-Pres.), including two NSF Graduate Research Fellowships, in addition to a Franklin Grant (American Philosophical Society), a Lerner Gray Grant (American Museum of Natural History, NYC), an Edward Raney Award (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), the George and Barbara Young Chair in Biology (URI), RI NSF EPSCoR, and the University of Rhode Island.

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 were the first to use CT and µCT imaging for the study of the comparative morphology of the swim bladder and ear in live, anesthetized fishes and for visualization of the cranial lateral line canals. We have 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.

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  (see Research Page). 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. 

Recent Research Highlights  

  • Hu et al. (submitted) demonstrated that if coral reef fishes with pelagic larvae use sound to orient to coral reef settlement habitat (as suggested in the literature), they do so with ears that lack any notable morphological modifications.
  • Nickles et al. (2020) provided the first detailed ontogeny of the lateral line system in any goby (the most speciose family of fishes on coral reefs) and reveal some of the “rules” underlying the organization of superficial neuromast proliferations that are so characteristic of gobies.
  • Hu et al. (2018) analyzed the ontogeny of the nose and taste buds in the pelagic larvae of coral reef fishes and used these data to suggest that taste, not olfaction, mediates chemosensory cues that larvae may use in orienting towards coral reef settlement sites
  • Marranzino and Webb (2018) revealed superficial neuromast proliferations in stomiiform fishes for the first time, which reveals the importance of flow sensing in these ubiquitous and ecologically critical deep-sea fishes. Figure8_CG-16-458
  • Webb and Ramsay (2017) analyzed the 3-D configuration of the lateral line canal within the lateral line scales of teleost fishes in order to clarify incorrect figures published in all textbooks.  Awarded Best Paper in Ichthyology for 2017 in Copeia
  • Webb, et al. (2014) and Bird and Webb (2014) explored the role of heterochrony in phenotypic evolution of the lateral line system in cichlids of Lake Malawi (Aulonocara stuartgranti, Tramitichromis sp.).  Schwalbe et al., (2012, 2016) and Schwalbe & Webb (2014, 2015) used live prey and artificial water flows to define the role of the lateral line system in benthic prey detection in Aulonocara and differences in the sensory basis for prey detection in Aulonocara and Tramitichromis.

Recent Webb Lab News

  • The Webb Lab welcomed two new MS students: Jenna O’Del (BS Univ. New Hampshire) and Eman Khwaja (BS Agnes Scott College, GA) in Fall 2020.
  • Dr. Webb received the 2020 Research Excellence Award by the College of the Environment and Life Sciences, University of Rhode Island.
  • Dr. Webb received a 2020 Franklin Grant from the American Philosophical Society for her work on digital visualization, quantification and modeling of lateral line canal phenotypes
  • PhD student (and NSF Graduate Research Fellow) Aubree Jones received 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 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) during her 2019-2020 sabbatical.
  • Dr. Webb spent time in Summer and Fall 2019 at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole as a  Whitman Center Affiliate (visiting scientist) during her 2019-2020 sabbatical.

More Webb Lab News…..

We thank all of our funding sources: