Preparing to take the temperature of a termite mound using an infrared camera. Picture taken at my field research site at the Omatjenne Agricultural Research Farm in northern Namibia.
Photo by Kirsten Petersen
My research is broadly concerned with how organisms interact with their environments.
Because I am a physiologist, that broad interest has led me to study the clever ways that animals and plants adaptively manage the flows of matter and energy between themselves and their environments. Pursuing that interest has led me to some heterodox conclusions about the nature of adaptation, how evolutionary works, and the emergence of intentionality and design. This has led to the publication of two books, The Extended Organism, and The Tinkerer's Accomplice, which you can read about on my publications page.
This research has played out in three broad areas, along with a grab-bag of miscellaneous stuff. I wish I could say there was a logic behind it all, but there's not: I mostly stumble into things that interest me.
Physiology of social insects
This is my current obsession.
Social insects, specifically termites, cooperate to produce "emergent physiology" at a scale much larger than the individuals in the colony. How do they manage the trick? How is it that swarms of termites "know" to build a structure that functions as an organ of physiology at a scale much larger than themselves? Just how do termite mounds work in the first place? These are questions we have long thought we understood, but in fact understand little.
Thermal energetics of incubating birds' eggs
How do incubating birds and embryos in their incubated eggs cooperate to manage the flows of heat between them? Sitting on an egg to warm it seems a simple thing, but there's some surprising physiology and biophysics lurking in there, which turns over most of the prevailing assumptions about the cost of reproduction in birds, and whether the embryo is a passive or active participant in the regulation of its own temperature.
Physiology of thermoregulation in ectothermic reptiles
Ectothermic reptiles, by definition, do not regulate body temperature by generating excess heat like mammals and birds do, but they can still actively regulate temperature by using their circulatory systems to move heat around their bodies and between their bodies and the environment. The result is a surprisingly active thermoregulation that may be a prelude to the thermogenic regulation that emerged in mammals and birds. The problem is how this works in very large reptiles. Alligators provide an interesting test case for how effective this circulatory form of thermoregulation is, and it leads to surprising insights into the interacting roles of body size and body shape.
One of the fun things about being a comparative physiologist is being able to work with a wide variety of critters. Along with my main areas of research, I've also had fun with a miscellany of stone plants, desert beetles, trapdoor spiders and spittle bugs.