What shapes an individual's behavior?
I study how the early environment contributes to behavioral variation, and how this behavioral variation then affects interactions between individuals, such as those that occur between males and females, parents and offspring, or predators and prey.
Using fishes as model species, I study how the behavior of individuals is affected by the stress their mothers experienced in the past and/or the quality of care they received from their fathers. I also study how the personalities of different individuals, be they males and females or predators and prey, can affect their interactions.
I am currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology at Sewanee: The University of the South. Before that I was a visiting postdoctoral researcher in the Behavioural Ecology Group at the University of Cambridge, UK (2013-2015) and a postdoctoral researcher in Alison Bell's lab at the University of Illinois (2009-2015). I completed my PhD with Joe Travis and my MSc with Don Levitan, both at Florida State University.
I was recently highlighted in a new faculty profile by the Society for the Study of Evolution.
Maternal stress & effects on offspring
Parents can influence offspring traits, including behavior, beyond their genetic contribution. I study how maternal stress due to predation risk shapes offspring behavior and survival with predators. Can mothers 'prepare' their offspring for a potentially dangerous future environment?
Paternal care & effects on offspring
I study how the parental care offspring receive from their father shapes their behavior, patterns of gene expression, and survival. How do fathers adjust the quality of their care to the stress level of their mate? How do these adjustments affect offspring phenotype? How does paternal care interact with the effects of maternal stress?
I study how predator-prey interactions are affected by the behavioral types of both predator and prey individuals, as well as the behavioral adjustments that predator and prey make in response to one another’s behavior during an encounter. Is the outcome of an interaction determined by how individuals respond to their opponent, or by the personality they bring to the interaction?
All of this research involves enthusiastic undergraduates!
Are you excited about doing science?
Do you want to get involved in research?
Do you like fish and watching behavior?
Come join the fun in the McGhee lab!
I have been very lucky to mentor a number of enthusiastic and hard working undergraduate students. Many of them have played crucial roles in data collection for large lab projects. Several of them have also completed exciting independent projects. Students often see things from a different perspective leading to some really fun experiments!
2019 (summer internship)
2018 (summer Research Bridge program)
2019 Project: Transgenerational consequences of dominance interactions
2018 Project: Maternal predator-exposure and offspring behavior
Angela returned to the lab this summer after her first year at Sewanee. She and JLo were the "super team" this summer - they kept the lab running and completed several awesome experiments! Before even starting officially as a student at Sewanee, Angela helped collect loads of data on how maternal stress can affect offspring behavior in mosquitofish!
JLo (Jonathan Lopez)
2019 (summer internship)
Project: Transgenerational consequences of dominance interactions
JLo just finished his first year at Sewanee and loves animals. He and Angela were the "super team" this summer - they kept the lab running and completed several awesome experiments! He and Angela successfully developed a great dominance assay!
2019 (summer volunteer)
Project: Can Rivulus detect genetic relatedness of embryo alarm cues?
Kaitlyn is a pre-Med Music major, but was eager to "dive" into the fun world of fish behavior! She has kept things running in the lab and completed an experiment examining whether rivulus react differently to alarm cues from related vs unrelated embryos.
Anna Kate Foshee
2018 (summer internship)
Project: Maternal predator-exposure and offspring behavior
Anna Kate is an Integrative Biology major and loves all animals (and fancy office supplies). This summer she trained Angela and helped collect loads of data on how maternal stress can affect offspring behavior in mosquitofish!
2016-2017 (summer internships)
2017 Project: How do recent predator encounters affect learning?
2016 Project: How do recent stressful experiences affect exploration, social behavior, and risk-taking?
Niko is a scholar with The Posse Foundation and the founder of the Sewanee biology club, BOLT. He helped me get the new fish lab up and running, and he also conducted two fantastic research projects over his two summers in the lab. He presented these projects at Scholarship Sewanee (2017: poster, 2018: talk) and the first project has just been accepted in Behavioural Processes!
Niko was also the recipient of Department of Biology's prestigious Yeatman award for his leadership qualities and enthusiasm for biology.
2017 (summer internship)
Project: Witnessing neighbors react to alarm cues alters risk perception in mosquitofish
Although her heart is in the marine world, Kailey completed a great research project on mosquitofish in the summer which ended up being her Honors Thesis. She tied for first place for her Thesis presentation at Scholarship Sewanee (spring 2018). She also helped me with extracting data from hours of video and doing an experiment on maternal stress during gestation.
Project: How does maternal stress affect her offspring’s ability to apply previously learned knowledge to a new situation?
Sally was awarded Distinction upon graduation from the University of Illinois for her excellent independent research project. The manuscript associated with her project was published in Animal Behaviour and was highlighted by the Editor. She also played an important role in a variety of other projects and was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to study coral reef conservation in the Philippines.
Project: Maternal predator-exposure has life-long consequences for offspring learning in threespined stickleback.
Danny was awarded High Distinction upon graduation from the University of Illinois for his outstanding independent research project. The manuscript associated with his project was published in Biology Letters and was highlighted in Nature. He also played an important role in a variety of other projects.
2012 (summer internship)
Project: Courtship plasticity in male threespined stickleback.
Sagan was a veterinary medicine student at the University of Illinois and worked in the Bell lab as part of the College of Veterinary Medicine Summer Research Training Program.
Sheriff, MJ, A Bell, R Boonstra, B Dantzer, SG Lavergne, KE McGhee, KJ MacLeod, L Winandy, C Zimmer, & OP Love. Integrating ecological and evolutionary context in the study of maternal stress. Integrative and Comparative Biology: 1-13. (invited paper)
Bell, AM, KE McGhee, & L Stein. Effects of mothers’ and fathers’ experience with predation risk on the behavioral development of their offspring in threespined sticklebacks. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences 7: 28-32.
McGhee, KE, S Feng*, S Leasure#, & AM Bell. A female’s past experience with predators affects male courtship and the care her offspring will receive from their father. Proceedings of the Royal Society Series B 282(1819): 20151840.
Featured article highlighted by the editor
Pintor, LM, KE McGhee, DP Roche*, & AM Bell. Individual variation in foraging behavior reveals a trade-off between flexibility and performance of a top predator. Behavioral Ecology & Sociobiology 68(10): 1711-1722.
Featured in Nature 490(8)
2007 & earlier
Levitan, DR, H Fukami, J Jara, D Kline, TM McGovern, KE McGhee, CA Swanson, & N Knowlton. 2004. Mechanisms of reproductive isolation among sympatric broadcast-spawning corals. Evolution 58(2): 308-323.
* denotes mentored undergraduate
# denotes mentored veterinary student
‡ denotes corresponding author (when not the first author)
Please note that these PDFs are for personal & educational use only.
Focuses on the study of animal behavior from an ecological and evolutionary perspective. Topics include the development of behavior, predator-prey interactions, foraging strategies, cooperation, mating behavior, and parental care. Laboratory emphasizes methods used to study animal behavior, including hypothesis testing, experimental design, and statistical analysis. Course also includes discussions of the primary literature and an independent research project.
Genes & Behavior
Focuses on the complex link between genes and behavior. Topics include development of behavior and methods used to study the genetics of behavior (quantitative genetics, gene expression, genome wide association studies, etc...) in a variety of animals, including humans. Course also includes discussions of the primary literature and student ‘Myth-Buster’ projects.
Field Investigations in Biology
An introduction to the study of the natural world, with an emphasis on hands-on exploration of local ecosystems. This course fulfills the General Education experiential learning objective.
High School BRIDGE Program
A brief introductory animal behavior course with laboratory and research project components. Part of the Sewanee summer Bridge program for high school students of under-represented groups in the STEM fields.