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Molly E Cummings

Department of Integrative Biology

Evolution of Conspicuous Signals. Mechanisms of Crypsis. Neural Mechanisms of Mate Choice.


Phone: 512-232-6243

Office Location
PAT 502

Postal Address
AUSTIN, TX 78712

B.A., Human Biology, Stanford University (1990)
Post-Graduate Diploma in Marine Science, James Cook University, Australia (1993)
Ph.D., Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology, University of California Santa Barbara (2001)

Research Summary:

My research focuses on the external and internal mechanisms that drive biodiversity in animal communication traits. I combine environmental measures, behavioral experiments in the lab, and molecular approaches to achieve an integrative understanding of the sources and targets of selection for communication trait evolution. I conduct research in 3 major areas: neural mechanisms of mate choice, polarization camouflage and communication, and the evolution of conspicuous signals.


Wallace KJ, Rausch RT, Ramsey ME, Cummings ME (2020) Sex differences in cognitive performance and style across domains in mosquitofish (Gambusia affinis). Animal Cognition, 23, 655-669 doi.org/10.1007/s10071-020-01367-2 [PDF]


Ramsey ME, Fry D, Cummings ME. 2019. Isotocin increases female avoidance of males in a coercive mating system: Assessing the social salience hypothesis of oxytocin in a fish species. Hormones and Behavior112:1-9. [PDF]

Reding L, Cummings ME. 2019. Rational choice of social group size in mosquitofish. Biology Letters15: 20180693. [doi: 10.1098/cz/zoy043] [PDF]


Cummings ME, Endler JA. 2018. 25 Years of Sensory Drive: the evidence and its watery bias. Current Zoology64(4): 471-484. [doi: 10.1093/cz/zoy043] [PDF]

Reding L, Cummings ME. 2018. Rational mate choice decisions vary with female age and multidimensional male signals in swordtails. Ethology124: 641-649. [doi: 10.1111/eth.12769] [PDF]

Cummings ME. 2018. Sexual conflict and sexually dimorphic cognition—reviewing their relationship in poeciliid fishes Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology72:73. [doi.org/10.1007/s00265-018-2483-9] [PDF]

Etheredge RI, Avenas C, Armstrong M, Cummings ME. 2018. Sex-specific cognitive–behavioural profiles emerging from individual variation in numerosity discrimination in Gambusia affinis. Animal Cognition21:37-53. [doi:10.1007/s10071-017-1134-2] [PDF]


Dreher CE, Rodriquez A, Cummings ME, Pröhl H. 2017. Mating status correlates with dorsal brightness in some but not all poison frog populations. Ecology and Evolution7:10503-10512. [PDF]

Reding L & Cummings ME. 2017. Context-dependent preferences vary by multicomponent signals in a swordtail. Animal Behaviour129: 237-247. [doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2017.05.017] [PDF]

Brock CD, Cummings ME, Bolnick DI. 2017. Phenotypic plasticity drives a depth gradient in male conspicuousness in threespine stickleback, Gasterosteus aculeatusEvolution71: 2022–2036. [doi:10.1111/evo.13282] [PDF]

Friesen C, Ramsey MR,  Cummings ME. 2017. Differential sensitivity to estrogen-induced opsin expression in two poeciliid freshwater fish species. General and Comparative Endocrinology246:200-210. [doi:/10.1016/j.ygcen.2016.12. 009] [PDF]


Crothers LC, Saporito RA, Yeager J, Lynch K, Friesen C, Richards-Zawacki C, McGraw K, Cummings ME. 2016. Warning signal properties covary with toxicity but not testosterone or aggregate carotenoids in a poison frog. Evolutionary Ecology, 30:601-621. [doi:10.1007/s10682-016-9830-y] [PDF]

Brady P, Gilerson AA, Kattawar GW, Sullivan JM, Twardowski MS, Dierssen HM, Cummings ME. 2016. Response to Comment on “Open-ocean fish reveal an omnidirectional solution to camouflage in polarized environments”. Science, 353: (6299), 552. [doi: 10.1126/science.aaf5018] [PDF]

Gu Y, Carrizo C, Gilerson AA, Brady PC, Cummings ME, Twardowski MS, Sullivan JM, Ibrahim AI, Kattawar GW. 2016. Polarimetric imaging and retrieval of target polarization characteristics in underwater environment. Applied Optics, 55, 626-637. [doi:10:1364/AO.55.000626] [PDF]

Reding, L. & Cummings, M. E. 2016. Does sensory expansion benefit asexual species? An olfactory discrimination test in Amazon mollies. Behavioral Ecology, 27, 441-418. [doi:10.1093/beheco/arv168] [PDF]


Brady, P. C., Gilerson, A. A., Kattawar, G. W., Sullivan, J. M., Twardowski, M. S., Diersen, H. M., Gao, M., Travis, K., Etheredge, R. I., Tonizzo, A., Ibrahim, A., Carrizo, C., Gu, Y., Russel, B. J., Mislinski, K., Zhao, S., Cummings, M. E. 2015. Open-ocean fish reveal an omnidirectional solution to camouflage in polarized environments. Science, 350, 965-968. doi: 10.1126/science.aad5284 [PDF]

Cummings, M. E., & Ramsey, M. E. 2015. Mate choice as social cognition: predicting female behavioral and neural plasticity as a function of alternative male reproductive tactics. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 6:125-131. doi:10.1016/j.cobeha.2015.10.001. [PDF]

Crothers, L.C., Cummings, M.E. 2015A multifunctional warning signal behaves as an agonistic status signal in a poison frog. Behavioral Ecology, 26 (2): 560-568. doi:10.1093/beheco/aru231 [PDF]

Wang, S., Cummings, M.E., Kirkpatrick, M. 2015. Coevolution of male courtship and sexual conflict characters in mosquitofish. Behavioral Ecology, doi:10.1093/beheco/arv049, 1-8. [PDF]

Dreher, C.E., Cummings, M.E., Prohl, H. 2015. An analysis of predator selection to affect aposematic coloration in a poison frog species. PLoS ONE, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0130571 [PDF]

Cummings, M. 2015. The mate choice mind: studying mate preference, aversion and social cognition in the female poeciliid brain. Animal Behaviour 103: 249-258. [PDF]

Zhao, S., Brady, P., Gao, M., Etheredge, R.I., Kattawar, G.W., Cummings, M.E. 2015. Broadband and polarization reflectors in the lookdown, Selene vomer. J. R. Soc. Interface 12: 20141390. [PDF]


Calabrese, G., Brady, P., Gruev, V., Cummings, M.E. 2014. Polarization signaling in swordtails alters female mate preference. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111: 13397-13402. [PDF]

Wong, R.Y., Cummings, M.E. 2014. Expression patterns of neuroligin-3 and tyrosine hydroxylase across the brain in mate choice contexts in female swordtails. Brain, Behavior and Evolution 83: 231-243. [PDF]

Ramsey, M.E., Vu, W. & Cummings, M.E. 2014. Testing synaptic plasticity in dynamic mate choice decisions: N-methyl d-aspartate receptor blockade disrupts female preference. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 281: 20140047. [PDF]

Wang, S.M.T., Ramsey, M.E. & Cummings, M.E. 2014. Plasticity of the mate choice mind: coutship evokes choice-like brain responses in females from a coercive mating system. Genes, Brain & Behavior 13: 365-375. [PDF]


Ryan M.J and Cummings M.E. 2013. Perceptual biases and mate choice. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 44: 437-459. [PDF]

Cummings M.E. & Crothers L.R. 2013. Interacting selection diversifies warning signals in a polytypic frog: an examination with the strawberry poison frog. Evolutionary Ecology 27: 693-710.

Brady P., Travis K., Maginnis T. & Cummings M.E. 2013. The polaro-cryptic mirror: a biological adaptation for open-ocean camouflage. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110: 9764-9769. 

Crothers L.C. & Cummings M.E. 2013. Warning signal brightness variation: sexual selection may work under the radar of natural selection in populations of a polytypic poison frog. The Ameican Naturalist 181(5): E116-E124. doi: 10.1086/670010.

Twomey E., Yeager J., Brown J.L., Morales V., Cummings M.E. & Summers K. 2013. Phenotypic and genetic divergence among poison frog populations. PLoS ONE 8(2): e55443. 

Cummings M.E. 2012. Looking for sexual selection in the female brain. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 367:2348-2356.

Ramsey M.E., Maginnis T.L., Wong R.Y., Brock C. & Cummings M.E. 2012. Identifying context-specific gene profiles of social, reproductive and mate preference behavior in a fish species with female mate choice. Frontiers in Neurogenomics 6:62. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2012.00062

Lynch K.S., Ramsey M.E. & Cummings M.E. 2012. The mate choice brain: comparing gene profiles between female choice and male coercive poeciliids. Genes, Brain and Behavior 11:222-229.

Maan M.E. & Cummings M.E. 2012. Poison frog colors are honest signals of toxicity- particularly for bird predators. The American Naturalist Vol. 179, No. 1, pp. E1-E14. 

Wong R.Y., Ramsey M.E. & Cummings M.E. 2012. Localizing brain regions associated with female mate preference behavior in a swordtail. PLoS ONE 7(11) e50355. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0050355 (click for link to paper).

Veilleux C.C., Cummings M.E. 2012. Nocturnal light environments and species ecology: implications for nocturnal color vision in forests. Journal of Experimental Biology 215:4085-4096. 

Yeager J., Brown J.L., Morales V., Cummings M.E. & Summers K. 2012. Testing for selection on color and pattern in a mimetic radiation. Current Zoology 58(4):668-676. 

You Y., Tonizzo A., Gilersonn A.A., Cummings M.E., Brady P., Sullivan J M., Twardowski M.S., Dierssen H.M. Ahmed S.A., & Kattawar G.W. 2011. Measurements and simulations of polarization states of underwater light in clear oceanic waters. Applied Optics 50: 4873-4893. 

Wong R.Y, So P., & Cummings M.E. 2011. How female size and male displays influence mate preference in a swordtail. Animal Behaviour 82: 691-697. 

Ramsey M.E., Wong R.Y. & Cummings M.E. 2011. Estradiol, reproductive cycle and preference behavior in a northern swordtail. General and Comparative Endocrinol 170: 381-390. 

Richards-Zawacki C.L. & Cummings M.E. 2011. Intraspecific reproductive character displacement in a polymorphic poison dart frog, Dendrobates pumilio. Evolution 65: 259-267. 

Crothers L., Gering E. & Cummings, M.E. 2011. Aposematic signal variation predicts male-male interactions in a polymorphic poison frog. Evolution 65: 599-605. 

Brady P. & Cummings M.E. 2010. Differential Response to Circularly Polarized Light by the
Jewel Scarab Beetle Chrysina gloriosa. The American Naturalist 175(5): 614-620. 

Brown J.L., Maan M.E., Cummings M.E., & Summers K. 2010. Evidence for selection on coloration in a Panamanian poison frog: a coalescent-based approach. Journal of Biogeography 37: 891-901. 

Maan M.E. & Cummings M.E. 2009. Sexual dimorphism and directional sexual selection on aposematic signals in a poison frog. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106: 19072-19077. 

Cummings M.E. & Gelineau-Kattner R. 2009. The energetic costs of alternative male reproductive strategies in Xiphophorus nigrensis. Journal of Comparative Physiology A 195: 935-46. 

Cummings M.E., Larkins-Ford J., Reilly C.R.L., Wong R., Ramsey M.R., & Hofmann H.A. 2008. Sexual and social stimuli elicit rapid and contrasting genomic responses. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 275: 393-402. 

Maan M.E. & Cummings M.E. 2008. Female preferences for aposematic signal components in a polymorphic poison frog. Evolution 62-9: 2334-2345. 

Cummings M.E., Bernal X.E., Reynaga R., Rand A.S., & Ryan M.J. 2008. Visual sensitivity to conspicuous male cue varies by reproductive state in Physalaemus pustulosus females. Journal of Experimental Biology 211: 1203-1210. 

Cummings M.E., Jordao J.M., Cronin T.W., & Oliveira R.F. 2008. Visual ecology of the fiddler crab, Uca tangeri: effects of sex, viewer and background on conspicuousness. Animal Behaviour 75: 175-188. 

Cummings M.E. 2007. Sensory trade-offs predicts signal divergence in surfperch. Evolution 61 (3): 530-545. 

Cummings M.E.& Johnsen S. 2007. Light, Effects of. In: Encyclopedia of Tidepools and Rocky Shores. Denny, M., Gaines, S. (Eds). University of California Press p325-329.

Darst CR. & Cummings M.E. 2006.Predator learning favors mimicry of a less toxic model in poison frogs. Nature 440: 208-211. 

Darst C.R., Cummings M.E. & Cannatella D.C. 2006.A mechanism for diversity in warning signals: conspicuousness versus toxicity in poison frogs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103: 5852-5857. 

Cummings M.E. & Mollaghan D.M. 2006.Repeatability and consistency of female preference behaviours in a northern swordtail, Xiphophorus nigrensis. Animal Behaviour 72: 217-224. [PDF]Cummings M.E., Garcia de Leon F.J., Mollaghan D.M. & Ryan M.J. 2006.Is UV ornamentation an amplifier in swordtails? Zebrafish 3:91-100. 

Grether G.G., Cummings M.E.& Hudon J. 2005.Countergradient variation in the sexual coloration of guppies (Poecilia reticulata): droserpterin synthesis balances carotenoid availability. Evolution 59: 175-188 

Ryan M.J. & Cummings M.E.2005.Animal signals and the overlooked costs of efficacy. Evolution 59: 1160-1161 

Cummings M.E. 2004.Modelling divergence in luminance and chromatic detectionperformances across measured divergence in surfperch (Embiotocidae) habitats. Vision Research 44:1127-1145. 

Cummings M.E., Rosenthal G.G. & Ryan M.J. 2003.A private ultraviolet channel in visual communication. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 270: 897-904.

Cummings M.E. & Zimmerman R.C. 2003. Light harvesting and the package effect in the seagrasses Thalassia testudinum Konig and Zostera marina L.: Optical constraints on photoacclimation. Aquatic Botany 75: 264-274. 

Cummings M.E. & Partridge J.C. 2001. Visual pigments and optical habitats of surfperch (Embiotocidae) in the California kelp forest. Journal of Comparative Physiology A 187: 875-889. 

Partridge J.C. & Cummings M.E. 1999. Adaptation of visual pigments to the aquatic environment. In: Adaptive Mechanisms in the Ecology of Vision. Archer, S.N., Damgoz, M.B.A., Loew, E.R., Partridge, J.C., Valerga S. (Eds) Kluwer Academic Publishers. Great Britain. Pp. 251-283.