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Dr. Catania’s lab studies animal sensory systems with a focus on brain organization, evolution, and behavior. They investigate sensory specialists because such species reveal general principles of brain function. Recently studied species include star-nosed moles, naked mole-rats, water shrews, and grasshopper mice. They also study the senses and brains of non-mammals including snakes, alligators, and crocodiles.
One line of research is aimed at determining how cortical areas in mammals are organized and adapted to represent and process sensory information. Star-nosed moles are the focus of many investigations because they have an elaborate set of touch receptors (the star) that project information to large brain areas containing anatomically visible sensory maps. This allows studies of brain function that are not possible in other species. They also examine brain organization in a range of animals to determine how brains are organized and (in collaboration with other neuroscientists) how brains evolved. They are also interested in understanding the relationship between different habitats and sensory adaptions.
Dr. Catania’s lab loves a mystery. Unexplained sensory abilities or anatomical structures are fertile ground for new discoveries. Funding from the MacArthur foundation has given them the flexibility to conduct several lines of research into mysterious behaviors or anatomy. Studies of the unusual appendages and predatory abilities of tentacled snakes, the strange behavior of worms in the Apalachicola National Forest, and the ability of some mammals to “sniff” while underwater are examples of these studies.