Head of the biology department
Under rocks and logs, in burrows and underwater, Mathis finds fascinating creatures to study. She focuses on behavioral ecology, or how animal behavior evolves due to ecological changes. Mathis delves deeply into aggression, territorial behavior, responses to predators and pheromones.
She studies tiny amphibians and fish, and also the second-largest salamander in the world, the hellbender, which is an endangered species.
She and students in her behavioral ecology lab may go in the field to examine animals in their natural habitats and collect animals to take back to campus, where they take care of the animals and examine their behaviors. Mathis and her students have made several fascinating discoveries about how these animals learn, recognize predators and tell others there may be danger by communicating chemically through olfactory cues.
“By the time they leave the lab, they’re really active scientists. And that is such a wonderful thing to experience, watching them go from a very uncertain student, not knowing at all what they’re going to be doing, to someone who’s a professional.” — Dr. Alicia Mathis
Missouri is the only state to call both subspecies of hellbenders home, and Mathis has been researching them since 1997. In the last few decades, the population of hellbenders in Missouri has declined more than 75 percent.
Hellbenders are great models for environmental studies. They require fast-flowing, cool, clear water to get the proper amount of oxygen, so they serve as an indicator for environmental health and, subsequently, public health related to agricultural runoff and pollution.
In addition, the methods of communication Mathis has seen in salamanders and other animals are far more sophisticated and complex than people might assume. It is possible that amphibians, fish and hellbenders may also serve as models for addressing questions about sensory behavior in other species, including humans.