The environment is never constant and undergoes frequent fluctuations, challenging organisms to keep up with the change. Although the change may not necessarily be rapid in onset or large in magnitude, it still can affect the way organisms interact with their immediate context. Focusing on behavioral and sensory plasticity, my research program answers how small-scale changes in the environment trigger major shifts in phenotypes. I use fish models for my questions and integrate findings from both field and laboratory studies to make better predictions on organisms’ survival in the face of human-induced climate change. 

Do small changes in the environment trigger major shifts in behavior? 
One of the core questions of my research is to understand how behavioral plasticity allows animals to keep up with changing contexts. From field studies conducted on convict cichlid, Amatitlania siquia, I found that even a small change in the availability of landmarks can result in a major shift in territorial behavior. For example, when landmarks are present, cichlids move territory boundaries closer to landmarks even if it makes the territory smaller in size because landmarked-boundaries are less costly to defend (Suriyampola and Eason 2016).


Similarly, with zebrafish (Danio rerio), I found that a small change in water flow can have a significant impact on social behavior. Both laboratory and field studies reveal that water flow is a main factor that influences group cohesion, aggression, and activity level of zebrafish (Suriyampola et al., 2015 & Suriyampola et al., 2016).  

How do sensory modalities allow organisms to keep up with the effects of environmental change?

Sensory systems are at the forefront of detecting environmental change. When these changes make sensory modalities less useful or reliable, animals tend to shift their reliance on different modalities. With the help of Johanel Caceres, a master’s student, I found that the shifts in sensory modalities can occur in adults based on their recent experiences. Fish with experiences in the turbid context had a stronger preference for olfactory as opposed to visual cues and responded less robustly to a reflexive visual stimulus, suggesting a shift in their primary sensory modality (Suriyampola et al. 2018).

I am extending this work to wild zebrafish populations to understand how evolutionary history and developmental background shape the reliance on sensory modalities. I measure optomotor response of wild zebrafish in the field using a portable device that I co-

developed with our lab technician, Melissa Lopez. Using swim tunnels and chemosensory assays, I further explore the compensatory shifts among sensory modalities.

Does the social context influence the performance of sensory modalities?

Although individuals in large groups are typically known to experience sensory enhancement, many animals occur in pairs or small groups. Testing differently-sized zebrafish shoals in a flow tank that I developed with a group of professionals, I found that sensory enhancement can occur even within small groups. This finding highlights that sensory enhancement is not confined to large groups and provides insight to better understand how small groups of animals will keep up with human-induced environmental change.

I am currently investigating how social context influences the performance of other sensory modalities in a changing environment.

How do common contaminants affect behavioral and sensory plasticity?

Although the ability to change phenotypes according to environmental conditions allows organisms to survive and persist in fluctuating habitats, sensory impairment via exposure to contaminants and developmental processes may constrain this capability. I am currently examining how exposure to common pollutants such as BPA during early development affect the ability to display plastic responses.

Positive Rheotaxis


9. Suriyampola PS, Lopez M, Ellsworth BE, Martins EP. 2020. Reversibility of multimodal shift: Zebrafish shift to olfactory cues when the visual environment changes. Integrative and Comparative Biology. DOI: 10.1093/icb/icaa036.


8. Roy T, Suriyampola PS, Flores J, Lopez M, Hickey C, Bhat A, Martins EP. 2019. Color preferences affect learning in zebrafish, Danio rerio. Scientific Reports.9: 14531.

7. Suriyampola PS, Caceres, J. Martins EP. 2018. Effects of short-term turbidity on sensory preference and behavior of adult fish. Animal Behaviour. 146:105-111.

6. Sykes DJ, Suriyampola PS, Martins EP. 2018. Previous experience in complex habitats increases aggression and group cohesion. PLOS ONE. 13 (10), e0204994. 

5. Suriyampola PS, Sykes,DJ, Khemka A, Shelton DS, Bhat A, Martins EP. 2016. Water flow impacts group behavior in zebrafish (Danio rerio), Behavioral Ecology. 27 (5):1-7.


4. Suriyampola PS, Shelton DS, Shukla R, Roy T, Bhat A, Martins EP. 2016. Social behavior of zebrafish in the wild. Zebrafish. 13 (1): 1-8. 


3. Suriyampola PS, Eason PK. 2015. The Effects of Landmarks on Territorial Behavior in a Convict Cichlid, Amatitlania siquia. Ethology. 121(8): 785-792. 


2. Suriyampola PS, Eason PK. 2015. Sex Differences in Territorial Behavior of Neolamprologus multifaciatus. Acta Ethologica 18 (1): 59-68. 


1. Suriyampola PS, Eason PK. 2014. A field study  investigating effects of landmarks on territory size and shape. Biology Letters. 10(4): 20140009.




Dr. Emília Martins: Arizona State University, USA

Dr. Perri Eason: University of Louisville, USA

Dr. Anuradha Bhat: IISER-Kolkata, India

Dr. Nishad Jayasundara: University of Maine, USA

Dr. Otakuye Conroy-Ben, Arizona State University, USA

Dr. Jaime Zuniga-Vega: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico

Dr. Andrew Whiteley: University of Montana, USA

Dr. Kenneth McKaye: University of the Americas (UAM), Nicaragua

Dr. Bruce Carlson: Washington University-St. Louis, USA