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Stephen Nowicki

Professor of Biology
Duke Box 90338, Durham, NC 27708
137 Biological Sciences Building, 130 Science Drive, Durham, NC 27708


Our lab studies animal communication, asking both proximate and ultimate questions about how signaling systems function and how they evolve. Most of our work is done with birds, although lab members have studied a variety of other taxa. One major theme that runs through our work is to understand how signal reliability (“honesty”) is maintained in the face of the competing evolutionary interests of signal senders and receivers. We use both laboratory experiments and field-based analyses to test hypotheses about the costs of signal production, which theory suggests are necessary to maintain reliability. For example, we have demonstrated that the reliability of birdsong as a signal of quality in the context of mate choice is maintained by variation in the response of young birds to early developmental stress, which in turn affects brain development and song learning. Another theme that runs through our work concerns how animals themselves perceive signals, in particular the role of categorical perception in communication. Our work here began with birdsong, for example demonstrating context-dependent variation in category boundaries that define the smallest acoustic units of song (“notes”), and identifying categorical responses of neurons in the “song system” of the brain to variation in those notes. More recently, we have begun to study categorical perception in visual signaling, demonstrating for example that the carotenoid-based orange-red coloration commonly used in assessment signaling may be perceived categorically. This finding illustrates the connection between our interests in perception and reliability, given that canonical models of reliability assume continuous perception.

Current Appointments & Affiliations

Professor of Biology · 2002 - Present Biology, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences
Associate Chair of the Department of Biology · 2022 - Present Biology, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences
Professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience · 2008 - Present Psychology & Neuroscience, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences
Professor of Neurobiology · 2010 - Present Neurobiology, Basic Science Departments
Faculty Network Member of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences · 2011 - Present Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, University Institutes and Centers
Associate of the Duke Initiative for Science & Society · 2021 - Present Duke Science & Society, Initiatives
Bass Fellow · 2004 - Present Biology, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences

Education, Training & Certifications

Cornell University · 1984 Ph.D.
Tufts University · 1978 M.S.
Tufts University · 1976 B.S.