Missouri State University

Dr. Alicia Mathis

  • Department head, biology
  • Springfield, Missouri
  • Ph.D., Environmental and Evolutionary Biology

She studies swimming and scampering species

Under rocks and logs, in burrows and underwater, Dr. Alicia Mathis finds fascinating creatures to study.

Mathis, head of the biology department at Missouri State University, focuses her research on the behaviors of tiny amphibians and fish, but also on the second largest salamander in the world, the hellbender, which is listed as an endangered species.

Although she sees the beauty in the way they move and communicate, so much of their lives are hidden from the average hiker. Sometimes these animals are hiding from predators, while other times, they only seem hidden due to their small size and cryptic colors: Terrestrial and stream salamanders are only the size of an earthworm.

Mathis argues that these species each are intricate and fascinating despite their size.

"We have all these ideas about the challenges animals encounter and how they have adapted to meet those challenges," she said. "What can animals do to increase their probability of survival and reproductive success? Everything, from the way your cells work to the way ecosystems work boils down to this."

Communicating like a terrestrial salamander

Even if you find these creatures a little creepy, Mathis says they can serve as a model for addressing questions about sensory behavior in other species, including humans.

In the field of behavioral ecology, or the study of how animal behavior evolves due to ecological changes, she delves deeply into aggression and territorial behavior, predation responses and pheromones. The methods of communication she’s seen are far more sophisticated and complex than people might assume.

Terrestrial salamanders, for instance, which abound in forests, are ideal for studying issues of competition and territoriality, according to Mathis. They defend territories, fight over patches of forest floor to maintain access to food sources and females guard their eggs.

"It turns out that there’s some interesting social behavior going on. In some species where males and females form pair bonds, they pay attention to whether their partners have been cheating on them."

Unlike a peacock that can flaunt its feathers or a frog that can croak its displeasure, these terrestrial salamanders don't advertise themselves visually or vocally. Instead, they produce territorial pheromones like many mammals, and Mathis studies how these salamanders can communicate chemically only by olfactory cues.

She, in collaboration with former graduate student Ben Dalton, found that through these pheromones, the animals can discern whether the other animal is of their own species or a different species. They can also tell sex, whether the other animal is familiar to them and whether it’s from a neighboring or adjoining territory.

Lab and field

At Missouri State, many biology undergraduates and almost all graduate students perform research under the supervision of their advisers. Mathis enjoys exploring the answers to the research questions her students pose.

Though a microscope isn’t needed to study the responses of these animals, she and her graduate students have had to employ creative techniques to follow some of these animals in her studies.

While snorkeling through streams and ponds, digging past water table levels in streams that have run dry, and camping out next to the waterways to observe the nightly behaviors of these animals is exhilarating, most of the work takes place in a lab that simulates their natural habitats. Their practicality is a primary reason these animals are Mathis’ first choice subject in her 350 square foot lab.

"For some of them, their natural habitats include burrows, so being in a really small space is something they like," she said. "They also adapt really well to the lab and show no signs of stress with people walking in front of the cages."

Sound the alarm: Big discoveries

Her post-doc work led her to Canada, where she continued her chemical communication research, but she expanded it to learn more about interactions between predators and prey. More specifically, she looked at how chemical cues help stickleback and minnows (more appropriate research subjects for that region) survive predatory encounters. When minnow skin is scratched by a predator, it releases an alarm pheromone, which conveys to other animals that there’s an active predator in the area, causing the fish to flee, seek shelter or school tightly together.

"Clearly minnows that respond to that chemical are going to increase their likelihood of survival. But one of the most eye-opening discoveries from the study was that there could be cross-species responses," she said. "It’s not only that minnows can respond to alarm cues from other minnows, but they could also respond to other really distantly related fish, like stickleback. They can respond across very large taxonomic divisions."