Stephen Nowicki, Professor  

Stephen Nowicki

Our lab studies animal communication and sexual selection from an integrative perspective that includes a wide range of behavioral ecological, neuroethological, developmental, genetic, and evolutionary approaches. Birds are our most common model system, but we also have worked with insects, spiders, shrimp, lobsters, lizards, and primates, including humans. The central question that drives our work is how information, in the broadest sense of that word, is used by organisms to maximize survival and reproductive success.

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

Office Location: 116 Allen Building, Durham, NC 27708
Office Phone: (919) 684-6950, (919) 668-3420
Email Address:
Web Page:

Organismal Biology and Behavior
Ecology and Population Biology

Research Categories: Function, structure, and evolution of animal signaling systems

Research Description: The Nowicki Laboratory studies behavioral ecology and neuroethology, especially questions about the function, structure and evolution of animal signaling systems. Although birds serve as a common model system in the lab, Nowicki and his students have worked on a variety of organisms including invertebrates such as insects, spiders, shrimp and lobsters, and other vertebrates including lizards, dolphins and primates. Steve Nowicki’s long-time research associate (and wife) is Susan Peters. Their current work lies in three main areas. The first, done in collaboration with Bill Searcy (University of Miami), concerns the evolution of signal reliability. In the context of sexual signaling, this work has focused on how early developmental stress affects brain development and song learning in birds, thus making song a reliable signal of male quality in mate choice by females. In the context of aggressive signaling in males, recent work has examined how particular vocal and visual signaling behaviors reliably predict attacks in aggressive encounters, and how receiver-retaliation imposes a cost that maintains this reliability. A second main line of research, done in collaboration with Rich Mooney (Duke Medical School), uses the learning, development, and perception of birdsong as a model system to study brain mechanisms underlying communication. Here, recent work focuses on categorical perception of signal features, both how neurons in the bird’s brain exhibit categorical responses to salient signal features and how categorical perceptual boundaries vary geographically as a consequence of learning. A third research program, also in collaboration with Bill Searcy, examines the interplay between cognition and communication, with the goal of understanding how cognitive abilities necessary for song learning and signaling associate with phenotypic and genetic differences (notably degree of inbreeding) among individuals in a population and how these associations map onto fitness and mate choice in the wild.

Areas of Interest:
evolution of animal signaling systems
neural basis of communication

Recent Publications   (More Publications)   (search)

  1. Caves, EM; Green, PA; Zipple, MN; Peters, S; Johnsen, S; Nowicki, S, Categorical perception of colour signals in a songbird., Nature, vol. 560 no. 7718 (August, 2018), pp. 365-367 [doi]  [abs].
  2. Lachlan, RF; Ratmann, O; Nowicki, S, Cultural conformity generates extremely stable traditions in bird song., Nature Communications, vol. 9 no. 1 (June, 2018), pp. 2417 [doi]  [abs].
  3. Liu, IA; Soha, JA; Nowicki, S, Song type matching and vocal performance in territorial signalling by male swamp sparrows, Animal Behaviour, vol. 139 (May, 2018), pp. 117-125 [doi]  [abs].
  4. Sewall, KB; Anderson, RC; Soha, JA; Peters, S; Nowicki, S, Early life conditions that impact song learning in male zebra finches also impact neural and behavioral responses to song in females., Developmental Neurobiology (April, 2018) [doi]  [abs].
  5. DuBois, AL; Nowicki, S; Peters, S; Rivera-Cáceres, KD; Searcy, WA, Song is not a reliable signal of general cognitive ability in a songbird, Animal Behaviour, vol. 137 (March, 2018), pp. 205-213 [doi]  [abs].