Kathy Kavanagh


Assistant Professor

Ph.D. James Cook University Post-Doc: Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, University of Helsinki, Harvard Medical School 

Evolutionary developmental biology, vertebrate embryology

Email: kkavanagh@umassd.edu
Phone: 508-999-8248 
Office: Science and Engineering, Room 332

I am essentially a comparative vertebrate embryologist, with broad interests in ecological and evolutionary questions. My current research aims to test whether processes during organ development can bias the production of variation (the phenotypes that are available for natural selection in a population) and thereby influence evolutionary patterns. I work on organ-systems with repeated elements that can vary in size; organs such as teeth or finger bones form in sequence from a single initial condensation, and, among species, there is significant variation in sizes. To test ideas and advance theory in this area, I employ methods from experimental embryology, comparative anatomy, developmental genetics, and computational modeling.

I also have a great interest in observing evolutionary and developmental processes in situ, that is, in nature and in response to ecological variation, and thus I study “natural evolutionary experiments” on populations of fishes. In these studies, I am focusing on interactions of developmental temperature and evolution of growth rates and tissue differentiation rates.

I welcome students and postdoctoral researchers who are interested in these research questions to contact me.


 Recent Publications | Graduate Students |  Courses

Current Projects

  • Developmental bias in the variational properties of phalanges (finger and toe bones) in birds and other vertebrates, with the chick as an experimental model.
  • Microevolutionary trade-offs in axial skeletal and muscle growth and development in populations of fishes along latitudinal or temperature gradients.


Evolution and Development

Shoval, O., H. Sheftel, G. Shinar, Y. Hart, O. Ramote, A. Mayo, E. Dekel, K. Kavanagh, U. Alon, 2012.  Evolutionary Trade-Offs, Pareto Optimality, and the Geometry of Phenotype Space.  Science 336:1157-1160.

Kavanagh, K.D., A.R. Evans, and J. Jernvall, 2007. Predicting evolutionary patterns of mammalian teeth from development. Nature 449:427-432.

Publication about this work: Polly, D. 2007. Development with a bite. Nature 449:413-415.
Distinction: This paper was chosen by Nature as one of 15 "Evolutionary Gems" of the past decade or so (www.nature.com/evolutiongems).

Kassai, Y., Munne, P., Hotta, Y., Penttilä, E., Kavanagh, K., Ohbayashi, N., Takada, S., Thesleff, I., Jernvall, J., and Itoh, N., 2005. Regulation of Mammalian Tooth Cusp Patterning by Ectodin. Science 309(5743):2067-2070.

Kavanagh, K.D., 2003. A molecular switch between proliferation and differentiation, maintained by anti-cancer selection, imposes a developmental constraint on ontogenetic rates and morphological evolution. Evolution 57(5):939-948.

Publication about this work: Galis, F., Metz, J.A.J., 2003. Anti-cancer selection as a source of developmental and evolutionary constraints. BioEssays 25:1035-1039.

Kavanagh, K.D. and R.A. Alford, 2003. Sensory and skeletal development and growth in relation to the duration of the embryonic and larval stages in damselfishes (Pomacentridae). Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 80:187-206.

Larval/Fish Development, Ecology and Evolution

Arvedlund, M., Kavanagh, K. 2009. The senses and environmental cues used by larvae of marine fish and crustacean decapods to find tropical ecosystems. Chapter 3.6. In: Ecological interactions between tropical coastal ecosystems. Springer. in press.

Murphy, B.F., J.M. Leis, and K.D. Kavanagh, 2007. Larval development of Pomacentrus amboinensis (Perciformes: Pomacentridae), the Ambon damselfish. Journal of Fish Biology 71:569-584.

Kavanagh, K.D. and Olney, J.E., 2006. Ecological Correlates of Population Density and Behavior in the Black Triggerfish Melichthys niger (Balistidae). Environmental Biology of Fishes 76(2-4):387-398.

Kavanagh, K.D., 2005. Boom-or-bust growth in the coral reef lagoon. Marine Ecology Progress Series 286:307-310.

Kavanagh, K.D. and R.A. Alford, 2003. Sensory and skeletal development and growth in relation to the duration of the embryonic and larval stages in damselfishes (Pomacentridae). Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 80:187-206.

Kavanagh, K.D., 2001. Fishes from Mountain Streams in the Crocker Range, Northwest Borneo. In "A Scientific Journey Through Borneo: Crocker Range National Park Sabah--Natural Ecosystems and Species Components (Volume 1)". Ed. Ghazally Ismail and Lamry Ali. Asean Academic Press, London.

Kavanagh, K.D., 2000. Larval brooding in the marine damselfish Acanthochromis polyacanthus (Pomacentridae) is correlated with highly divergent morphology, ontogeny, and life-history traits. Bulletin of Marine Science 66(2): 321-337.

Kavanagh, K.D., J.M. Leis, and D.S. Rennis, 2000. Pomacentridae in "The Larvae of Indo-Pacific Coastal Fishes: An Identification Guide to Marine Fish Larvae" Fauna Melanesia Handbooks 2. Edited by J.M. Leis and B.M. Carson-Ewart.

Southgate, P. and Kavanagh, K.D., 1999. Effects of n-3 fatty-acid composition of enhanced Artemia diet on growth and mortality of Acanthochromis polyacanthus. Aquatic Living Resources 12(1):31-36.

Kavanagh, K.D., 1998. Notes on the frequency and function of glancing behavior in Acanthochromis polyacanthus (Pomacentridae) juveniles. Copeia 1998(2):493-496.

Recent Graduate Students


Courses Professor Kavanagh has taught include:

Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy (Fall Semesters)

Evolutionary Developmental Biology (Alternate Spring Semesters)

Ecological Developmental Biology (Alternate Spring Semesters)

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