“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 Lf-22_SO5the 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).

Our work has been funded by several National Science Foundation grants (1997-Pres.), a NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, the Lerner Gray Fund of the American Museum of Natural History, a Marine Biological Laboratory (Woods Hole) Research Fellowship, RI NSF EPSCoR, the George and Barbara Young Chair in Biology, 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.

CephippiumSchmoo2We 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). See: Butterflyfish Project page). We are continuing to develop µCT visualization methods for the study of the development and comparative morphology of the cranial lateral line canals of teleost fishes (e.g., Alberg et al., 2010 [poster]; Webb et al., 2014), and for modeling of lateral line canal function.  See: µCT Imaging Page.




We recently completed a histological investigation of the 3-D configuration of the lateral line canal within the lateral line scales of teleost fishes (Webb and Ramsay, 2017; 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.

Webb Lab News

  • Dr. Webb spent June 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 (MBio Class of 2019) received Honorable Mention for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship (2019). 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 will be going to Cornell University to study whale bioacoustics with full fellowship support.
  • Dr. Webb named Finalist for the URI Foundation Award for Excellence in Teaching.
  • Dr. Webb became a member of the SEA Education Association Board of Trustees.
  • Paper with the Albertson Lab (UMass-Amherst) on the genetic and developmental basis for a novelty in cichlids has been published in US Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci.(www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1719798115)
  • Paper by Webb and Ramsay (2017) selected by Copeia as Best Paper in Ichthyology for 2017 – Webb JF and Ramsay J. 2017. A new interpretation of the 3-D configuration of lateral line scales and the lateral line canal contained within them. Copeia. 105(2): 339-347. DOI: 10.1643/CG-17-601. 
  • Former PhD student, Dr. Margot Schwalbe (in photo) accepted a position as Assistant Professor at Lake Forest College (IL) (Fall 2018).
  • MS student Ashley Marranzino won the 2016 ASIH Stoye Award in Genetics, Development and Morphology (best student presentation) awarded by the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists at its 2016 annual meeting. This work has been published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.
  • Dr. Webb was appointed as the first George and Barbara Young Chair in Biology (2016), the first endowed chair in the College of the Environment and Life Sciences. See article HERE.
  • MS student Julia Johnstone received Honorable Mention for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship (2016).
  • New NSF Grant – The Role of Larval Orientation Behavior in Determining Population Connectivity – in collaboration with PM Buston, J Atema (Boston University) and CB Paris (U. Miami). 1459546 (2015 – 2019)
  • Bird and Webb (2014) designated as “Highly Accessed” by EvoDevo – Bird, NC and Webb, JF. 2014. Heterochrony, modularity, and the functional evolution of the lateral line system. EvoDevo 2014, 5:21. DOI: 10.1186/2041-9139-5-21. Full text. 
  • Post-Doc, Dr. Nathan Bird is now Assistant Professor, Department of Biology, University of Northern Iowa; http://www.uni.edu/biology/dr-nathan-bird

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