The DuVal Lab - Jessica Cusick

Jessica Cusick

Ph.D. Candidate
Office: KIN 4004, Department of Biological Science
for resume: email

B.A. Biological Sciences - SUNY Binghamton University
B.A. Psychology - SUNY Binghamton University
M.S. Biological Sciences - Florida Atlantic University

Research Interests:
I am a behavioral ecologist interested in how and why individuals interact to form complex social groups. Interactions between different entities occur across all levels of biological organization, from cell interactions within an organism to complex cooperative hunting in chimpanzees. When considering social interactions, individuals cannot be considered isolated entities that respond only to changes in their own immediate environment. Instead, individuals are also responding to the dynamic behaviors of other individuals and therefore need to integrate both environmental and complex social stimuli when making decisions.

My research investigates cooperative behavior, a complex social interaction that can occur between individuals within a single group or between multiple social groups. My interests span across different systems and environments as I try to understand how individuals process complex information from their social and physical environment to form cooperative groups, whether some individuals differ in their propensity to cooperate and degree of cooperative behavior, and how cooperative groups can be beneficial or costly in different situations.

Dissertation Research
I am currently studying cooperative breeding behavior in the Brown-headed Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla). In cooperative breeding systems, young individuals often forgo their own reproduction and assist other breeders raise offspring. Brown-head nuthatches are facultative cooperative breeders, meaning not all breeding groups have helpers and not all young males become helpers. This study system is ideal for testing whether individual variation in the propensity to cooperate occurs, how proximate mechanisms can maintain individual variation in cooperation, and how this influences this facultative cooperative breeding system. My dissertation research investigates within-individual consistency and interindividual variation in the propensity to cooperate and what proximate mechanisms maintain this variation within a population.

Collaborative Research Projects
In addition to my dissertation research, I work in collaboration with Florida State University Coastal and Marine Lab, University of Florida, and University of South Florida studying the natural history, life history, and recovery of the Atlantic Goliath Grouper (Epinephelus itijara). We are investigating age and growth of this species, spawning behavior, diet, and overall health during both the spawning and nonspawning seasons. To date, most of our research has focused on the Atlantic coast of Florida and we are now continuing our research efforts in the Gulf of Mexico.

Cusick, J.A. & Herzing, D.L. 2014. The dynamic of aggression: how individual and group factors affect the long-term interspecific aggression between two sympatric species of dolphin. Ethology, 120(3), DOI: 10.1111/eth.12204

Science education and teaching are extremely important to me. Through my fieldwork I am able to mentor undergraduate students and recent graduates interested in gaining additional experience in this field. I am also involved in mentoring younger students in science and research. The goal of these programs is to get students in middle school and high school excited about science. I am a lead educator for the Shanks Middle School Mentoring Program. This is an after school science program for 8th graders where we hold weekly afterschool lessons that reinforce what they learn in the classroom. We also assist the students prepare for their yearly science fair. I also help lead the Tallahassee SciGirls Camp fieldtrip to Tall Timbers where we encourage young girls to become interested and excited about science!

Invited Talks and Seminars
Scientific collaboration and bridging the gap between science and the local community is one of my major priorities as a scientist. In addition to presenting at major scientific conferences, I have been invited to give talks and seminars for middle schools, high schools, and colleges. These lectures include presenting my research in marine biology and cooperative behavior, and also discussing my career as a woman in science. This is something I will continue to do at the local and national level. If you are interested in having me speak, please email me at:

I have had the privilege of teaching many different courses over my career including animal behavior, ornithology, and experimental biology. Most recently at Florida State University, I was the instructor of record for the biodiversity unit of the general biology course for non-majors. I have also taught undergraduate labs at Florida State University, Florida Atlantic University, was a teaching assistant for the marine biology course at SUNY Binghamton University. Through teaching I hope to draw out students’ curiosity in our natural world and expose them to the value of the scientific process in our lives.