The Language of Colors

Devi Stuart Fox is the 2013 L'Oréal-UNESCO special fellow, "in the footsteps of Marie Curie," for excellence in the pursuit of her career. She was a fellow in 2003 for her discoveries on the chameleon and the reasons for its change of colors. Since then, she has made new breakthrough discoveries on the aninal, explaining its behavior when confronted by a predator. With her work, Devi Stuart Fox has contributed to improving our knowledge of evolutionary biology.

As a teenager growing up in Australia, Dr. Devi Stuart-Fox loved nothing more than to collect lizards. This unusual teenage pastime, coupled with a love of wild landscapes and an unending curiosity for the weird and wonderful quirks of evolution, meant that she was always destined to be a biologist.

From the earliest years of her scientific career, Devi Stuart-Fox has strived to answer two of the most fundamental questions of evolutionary biology: how and why did diversity evolve? In 2003, her L’Oréal-

UNESCO International Fellowship in Witwatersrand, South Africa gave her the opportunity to address these questions through a study of the evolution of color change in dwarf chameleons. The chameleon’s ability to change color as a means of hiding from its predators is legendary. But color change is also used for communication to other chameleons, whether potential mates or rivals. For the first time, Devi Stuart-Fox demonstrated that chameleon color change evolved to facilitate communication rather than camouflage.

Recent developments in the understanding of animal vision also led Dr. Stuart-Fox to study the tricky question of how animals deal with multiple types of predators with differing sensory capabilities and methods of prey detection. By using a “predator's eye view” of dwarf chameleon color change, she showed that they exhibit different color patterns in response to bird and snake predators, which have very different visual capabilities.

Since returning to Australia, Devi Stuart-Fox’s research has been characterized by a combination of experimental work and behavioral field observations. Using a comparative evolutionary approach, her research has highlighted the importance of both environmental and shared ancestry in the evolution of animal color patterns and signaling.

Devi Stuart-Fox has also made important theoretical contributions in both animal behavior and evolutionary biology. Her work on animal contests led her to propose a new measure of fighting ability which takes into account changes in ability as a result of experience, a notion which has increased understanding of how animals resolve disputes.

More recently, Devi Stuart-Fox’s research, published in Nature, has helped confirm a major theory in evolutionary biology which suggests that the processes generating and maintaining different color forms can promote speciation. She and a colleague demonstrated that birds with multiple, genetically determined color forms, and coexisting within an interbreeding population, evolve into new species faster than those with only one color form.

She believes strongly that field biologists are also advocates for conservation and can help raise awareness of the importance of preserving biodiversity. To this end, she regularly communicates about her research and has received widespread media attention. As a mother, Devi Stuart-Fox is now even more aware of the importance of getting out of the laboratory and “back to the wild” whenever she can to share her fascination with the beauty and diversity of nature with her two young children.

More information about Devi Stuart Fox :

For Women in Science

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