Decoding Animal Communication: Exploring Social Bonds in Small Mammals

August 03, 2023

Morgan Gustison, Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychology

Morgan Gustison is joining the department of Psychology. Gustison is a neuroethologist, studying the evolution of natural animal behaviour, and the underlying mechanistic control by the nervous system. She is particularly focused on the complex social and communication behaviours of small mammals. 

Her work brings together understanding of how vocalizations are used in animal relationships, and how the different regions of the brain play a role in those same vocalizations and relationships.  

Through her graduate research, Gustison travelled around the world researching primates in different locations. During her PhD studies at the University of Michigan, Gustison travelled to Ethiopia to research Gelada monkeys. There, she became interested in the communication behaviours of primates, and the complexities of communication. She became interested in the neural underpinnings of communication while completing a postdoctoral research fellowship at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, studying marmoset vocalizations.  

“This was a rich environment for computational neuroscience, and I was introduced to a lot of different concepts,” she said.  

During a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Texas at Austin, she studied the neural system involved in pair-bonding in prairie voles. The small rodent, found across grasslands in the central United States and Canada, is one of the few mammals that form monogamous pair bonds, and engage in bi-parental care. They have complex vocalizations, but as they communication at the ultrasonic level, the vocalizations are not often heard by humans, and are understudied.  

Gustison wants to understand the role of communication in the complex social behaviours of the voles, including how they form and maintain partnerships. Much of this communication is controlled by the prefrontal cortex, an important brain region for development of empathy, as well as motor movements. In her research, Gustison is trying to understand the interactions of these factors. She is using state-of-the-art systems neuroscience tools, like iDISCO and transsynaptic tracing, to develop brain-wide maps to identify which areas of the brain are important for bonding.  

She has received an NSERC grant to support this research. The funded project will focus on how vocal communication is used through the formation and maintenance of pair bonds. To understand the neurological link, she will also use technology to manipulate brain areas, providing an understanding on how these changes impact the ability to communicate, and how this variation in communication impacts long-term social bonding.  

Gustison is excited to join the department of Psychology at Western, to “work with people who are approaching similar questions but from different perspectives.”  

“It’s nice to be part of a research community that is interdisciplinary. There are people who are very interested in social interactions of humans and other animals” she said. “What really struck me about the psychology department is that there are people who study human romantic relationships, people researching language and development, motor and sensory systems, and animal communication. I’m excited to be able to interact with people who study related ideas but in different spheres.”