Professor of Biology
BS University of Guelph (1989)
MS McGill University (1992)
Ph.D. McGill University (1996)
113 Winston Hall
Areas of interest
Snakes in a lab
For most of my career, my research focused on using experimental evolution with budding yeast to test hypotheses and answer questions about evolutionary genetics. In fall 2019, I switched to experiments on learning and memory in snakes, using corn snakes (Pantherophis guttatus) as subjects.
Snakes tend to draw strong reactions from people. You may love them, hate them, fear them or admire them, but you are probably not indifferent to them. To many they seem mysterious, with eyes that never blink and tongues that flicker with questions. Compared to mammals and birds, we know little about their learning abilities. The basics are likely to be about the same as in other vertebrates – operant conditioning, for example, works on snakes in about the same way as it does on rats and mice (snake food). But there are major differences in the physiology, ecology and sensory biology of snakes that may have affected how they learn in unique ways.
As a few examples:
Snakes are highly specialized for eating large meals a week or more apart. Free of the need to find food multiple times a day, have snakes evolved different cognitive tools from those that constantly fend off hunger in rodents, primates, or birds?
Snakes generally are thought to rely much less on vision and more on highly sensitive olfactory and chemosensory abilities than us and established models of animal cognition. I suspect that much of the mental activity in their daily lives goes unnoticed because it is literally invisible. Snakes are believed to lead solitary lives, with an appreciation of the highly social nature of some rattlesnakes only recently becoming widespread. But because in most other contexts (like hunting) snakes seem to use their sense of smell more than their vision, their social interactions (besides mating) are at least as likely to be by scent as to be visible. Some of my lab’s current research is gathering preliminary data for experiments on scent and interactions (for example, confirming that corn snakes respond differently to the scent of another corn snake than to their own scent).
Do cornsnakes have personalities?* In the context of animal behavior, “personalities” mean stronger correlations between the behavior of the same snake evaluated at different times or in different settings than between the behaviors of different individuals. Are these personality differences correlated with differences in how they learn?
My lab is just setting out to answer questions like these using a colony of 16 corn snakes. We hope that if we can communicate to a broader audience what we learn about their cognitive abilities, snakes will start to encounter less fear and more curiosity from people who come across them.
Science is a highly social endeavor. Members of the lab are expected and required to show respect, care, and empathy towards others in the lab, in the biology department, and in the University.
*Spoiler: yes they do, and some are obvious – Two like to climb and are usually as far above the floor as their environmental-enrichment objects allow, one buries under his substrate, and one dislikes particular students that every other snake is friendly with.
see also pubmed list of papers [LINK]
Marayati BF, Drayton AL, Tucker JF, Huckabee RH, Anderson AM, Pease JB, Zeyl CW, Zhang K. Loss of Elongation-Like Factor 1 Spontaneously Induces Diverse, RNase H-Related Suppressor Mutations in Schizosaccharomyces pombe. Genetics. 2018 Aug;209(4):967-981.
Murphy HA, Zeyl CW. 2015. A Potential Case of Reinforcement in a Facultatively Sexual Unicellular Eukaryote. Am Nat. 2015 Aug;186(2):312-9.
Zeyl C. 2014. Evolution: a collection of misfits. Curr Biol. 2014 May 19;24(10):R394-6.
Jasmin, Jean-Nicolas and C. Zeyl. 2014. Rapid evolution of cheating mitochondrial genomes in small yeast populations. Evolution 68: 269-275.
Jasmin, Jean-Nicolas and C. Zeyl. 2013. Evolution of pleiotropic costs in experimental populations. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 26: 1363-1369.
J-N Jasmin and C Zeyl. 2012. Life-history evolution and density-dependent growth in experimental populations of yeast. Evolution 66:3789–3802.
J-N Jasmin, M Dillon, and C Zeyl. 2012. The yield of experimental yeast populations declines during selection. Proceedings of the Royal Society 279:4382-4388.
HA Murphy and C Zeyl. 2011. Prezygotic isolation between Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Saccharomyces paradoxus through differences in mating speed and germination timing. Evolution 66:1196-1209.
HA Murphy and C Zeyl. 2010. Yeast sex: surprisingly high rates of outcrossing between asci. PLoS One 5:e10461
C Zeyl. 2010. Evolutionary genetics: desperate times call for more sex. Current Biology (Dispatch) 20: R637-639.
C Zeyl and SP Otto. 2007. A short history of recombination in yeast. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 22:223-225.
C Zeyl. 2007. Evolutionary genetics: a piggyback ride to adaptation and diversity. Current Biology 17: R333-335
C Zeyl. 2007. How missing genes interact. Nature Genetics 39:440-442.