About Me

I study how complex traits evolve — with a particular emphasis on cognition.
My research on cognitive evolution has focused on multiple levels (species, individual, genome) and multiple sources of selection (sexual selection, social environment, parenting, habitat).

For my doctoral dissertation, I studied satin bowerbirds (Ptilonorhynchus violaceus) with Dr. Gerald Borgia. Male bowerbirds construct courtship arenas out of sticks decorated with feathers and flowers on which they dance to show off to females their vocal prowess and physical vigor. I found that males who performed better on cognitive tasks such as solving novel problems were sexually preferred by females (smart was sexy!) and males may indicate their cognitive ability through their complex displays.

During my first postdoctoral research position, I studied speciaion and adaptive divergence in threespine stickleback fish (Gasterosteus aculeatus) with Dr. Jenny Boughman. Specifically, I studied recently diverged species-pairs of sticklebacks that have adapted to two major ecological niches (called “limnetic” and “benthic”). I utilized this system to study how populations evolve cognitive differences as they adapt to different environments. In addition, I studed how sexual selection can affect the speciation process.

In my current postdoctoral research position, I continue to study threespine sticklebacks with Dr. Alison Bell. Specifically, I am studying how paternal care can affect offspring behavior, and the mechanisms behind these behavioral differences (e.g., epigenetic modifications).

Jason and bird


paternal effects

paternal effects on offspring behavior

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male competition

male competition and speciation

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gene expression

female brain gene expression during courtship

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cognition natural selection

cognition and natural selection

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cognition sexual selection

cognition and sexual selection

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ecological consequences of habitat modification

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   #co-first authors

   undergraduate mentee

   masters mentee (committee member)

  1. Keagy, J., Minter, R., and Tighitella, R. 2019. Sex differences in cognition and their relationship to male mate choice. Current Zoology. 65: 285-293. [open access link]Special column: “Learning and Neurobiological Aspects meet Sexual Selection”

  2. Tighitella, R., Lackey, A., Martin, M., Dijkstra, P., Drury, J., Heathcote, R., Keagy, J., Scordato, E., and Tyers, A. 2018. A major player need not be the only player in speciation: a response to comments on Tinghitella et al. Behavioral Ecology. 29: 802-803. [free access link]

  3. Tinghitella, R., Lackey, A., Martin, M., Dijkstra, P., Drury, J., Heathcote, R., Keagy, J., Scordato, E., and Tyers, A. 2018. On the role of male competition in speciation: A review and research agenda. Behavioral Ecology. 29: 783–797. [free access link]Invited Review

  4. Saltz, J.B., Bell, A.M., Flint, J., Gomulkiewicz, R., Hughes, K.A., and Keagy, J. 2018. Why does the magnitude of genotype-by-environment interaction vary? Ecology and Evolution. 8: 6342–6353. [open access link]

  5. Keagy, J., Braithwaite, V.A., and Boughman, J.W. 2018. Brain differences in ecologically differentiated sticklebacks. Current Zoology. 64: 243-250. [open access link]Special column: “Ecology and Evolution along Environmental Gradients”

  6. Bell, A.M., Trapp, R., and Keagy, J. 2018. Parenting behavior is highly heritable in male sticklebacks. Royal Society Open Science. 5: 171029. [open access link] [data]

  7. Canino-Koning, R., Keagy, J., and Ofria, C. 2017. Sexual selection promotes ecological speciation in digital organisms. In: Proceedings of ECAL 2017 the 14th European Conference on Artificial Life. Knibbe, C., Beslon, G., Parsons, D., Misevic, D., Rouzaud-Cornabas, J., Bredèche, N., Hassas, S., Simonin, O., Soula, H., Eds. MIT Press. pp. 84-90. [open access link]

  8. Minter, R., Keagy, J. and Tinghitella, R. 2017. Complex relationship between male sexual signals, male cognitive performance, and mating success. Ecology and Evolution. 7: 5621–5631. [open access link] [data]

  9. Boughman, J.W., Keagy, J. and Weigel, W. 2017. Sexual Selection and Speciation. In: Oxford Bibliographies in Evolutionary Biology. J. Losos, Ed. Oxford University Press. [web link] [pdf]

  10. Martinez, J.#, Keagy, J.#, Wurst, B., Fetzner, W. and Boughman, J.W. 2016. The relative role of genes and environment on spatial learning ability in recently diverged stickleback fish. Evolutionary Ecology Research. 17: 565-581. [abstract link] [pdf]Part of the Special Issue Stickleback Behaviour and Evolution: contributions from the 8th International Stickleback Conference

  11. Keagy, J.#, Hosler, L.C.#, and Borgia, G. 2016. Female active sampling of male paint on bowers predicts female uncertainty in mate choice. Animal Behaviour. 116: 131-137. [pdf]featured in that issue's In Focus section [pdf]

  12. Keagy, J., Lettieri, L. and Boughman, J.W. 2016. Male competition fitness landscapes predict both forward and reverse speciation. Ecology Letters. 19: 71-80. [pdf] [data]

  13. Borgia, G. and Keagy, J. 2015. Sexual selection and cognitive ability: what bowerbirds can teach us. In Animal Signaling and Function: An Integrative Approach. D. Irschick, M. Briffa, J. Podos, Eds. John Wiley and Sons. [pdf]

  14. Borgia, G., Coyle, B. and Keagy, J. 2012. Comment on "Illusions Promote Mating Success in Great Bowerbirds". Science. 337: 292-292. [pdf]

  15. Keagy, J., Savard, J-F, and Borgia. G. 2012. Cognitive ability and the evolution of multiple behavioral display traits. Behavioral Ecology. 23: 448-456. [free-access link]

  16. Chappell, M.A., Savard, J-F, Siani, J., Coleman, S.W., Keagy, J., and Borgia, G. 2011. Aerobic capacity in wild satin bowerbirds: repeatability and effects of age, sex and condition. The Journal of Experimental Biology. 214: 3186-3196. [pdf]featured on cover [pdf]

  17. Keagy, J., Savard, J-F, and Borgia, G. 2011. Complex relationship between multiple measures of cognitive ability and male mating success in satin bowerbirds, Ptilonorhynchus violaceus. Animal Behaviour. 81:1063-1070. [pdf]featured in John Alcock’s Animal Behavior textbook

  18. Savard, J-F, Keagy, J., and Borgia, G. 2011. Blue, not UV, plumage color is important in satin bowerbird Ptilonorhynchus violaceus display. Journal of Avian Biology. 42: 80-84. [pdf]

  19. Keagy, J., Savard, J-F, and Borgia, G. 2009. Male satin bowerbird problem-solving ability predicts mating success. Animal Behaviour. 78: 809-817. [pdf]featured in that issue's In Focus section [pdf]

  20. Desrochers, D.W., Keagy, J.C., and Cristol, D.A. 2008. Created versus natural wetlands: Avian communities in Virginia salt marshes. Ecoscience. 15: 36-43. [pdf]

  21. Borgia, G. and Keagy, J. 2006. An inverse relationship between decoration and food colour preferences in satin bowerbirds does not support the sensory drive hypothesis. Animal Behaviour. 72: 1125-1133. [pdf]

  22. Keagy, J.C., Schreiber, S.J., and Cristol, D.A. 2005. Replacing sources with sinks: When do populations begin to go down the drain? Restoration Ecology. 13: 529-553. [pdf]

Google Scholar


The Washington Post. 14 February 2018. Sarah Kaplan. Let's be real: Birds are better valentines than whomever you are dating.

The Genius of Birds. 2016. Jennifer Ackermann. Penguin Press. [publisher link]

MSU Today. 27 January 2016. Layne Cameron. New finding shows that males can drive creation of new species.

Science. 8 August 2014. Elizabeth Pennisi. In the battle for fitness, being smart doesn’t always pay. [pdf]

Feedback. The Association for Study of Animal Behavior Education Newsletter. January 2011. Michael Dockery. [pdf]

BBC Wildlife Magazine. April 2010. "Smart is sexy."

The Psych Files. 25 September 2009. Michael A. Britt, Ph.D. Episode 105: Smart birds are more successful with the ladies.

Sydney Morning Herald. 2 September 2009. Deborah Smith. Why eggheads get the girls and birdbrains don't.

Science. 28 August 2009. 325:1053. Constance Holden. Random Samples: It's fit to be smart. [pdf]

ScienceNOW. 21 August 2009. Constance Holden. Brainy birds get more chicks.

NewScientist. 19 August 2009. Ewen Callaway. Why geeks get the girls.

BBC EARTH NEWS. 18 August 2009. Jody Bourton. Bird brains prove to be very sexy.

The Washington Post. 14 February 2008. Claire Miller. The Bower of Love: Male birds in Australia seek to impress with flowers and dancing.

Genius of Birds

Science        BBC EARTH NEWS


Sydney Morning Herald

The Washington Post


Jason Keagy
Postdoctoral Research Associate
Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Behavior
School of Integrative Biology
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign