Browse/search for people

Dr Stephen Montgomery

Evolution of brains and behaviour

Research keywords

  • Brain evolution
  • Behaviour
  • Cognition
  • Evolutionary neurobiology

Research methods

  • behavioural experiments
  • butterfly wrangling
  • confocal microscopy
  • genomics
  • image analysis
  • immunohistochemistry
  • molecular evolution
  • neuroanatomy
  • phylogenetic comparative methods.

Research findings

I study the evolution of brains and behaviour. I am particularly interested in how brains adapt to different environments, how changes in brain structure produce behavioural differences, and how selection navigates developmental and functional constraints that may limit or channel the adaptive response.

I take a comparative approach to tackling these questions, comparing molecular and phenotypic data across species. Much of my work in mammals has focused on identifying genes associated with the evolution of brain size, and investigating the causes and consequences of co-evolution between different regions of the brain, and between brain and body size. I also have side interests in dwarfism, animal play, and human evolution.

Currently, Neotropical butterflies are the major focus of my research. I study two tribes of mimetic butterflies, the Ithomiini and Heliconiini. The diversification of these butterflies has often involved ecological adaptation to different habitat types and ecological niches. As a result they show a range of derived behavioural traits including sensory adaptations and novel foraging behaviours. This pattern of ecological adaptation make these butterflies an ideal case study in ecological neurobiology. 

Below are some recent papers that illustrate my research focus:


Montgomery SH, Merrill RM. Divergence in brain composition during the early stages of ecological specialization in Heliconius butterflies. J Evol Biol (2017) 30 (3): 571-582.

Montgomery SH, Merrill RM, Ott SR. Brain Composition in Heliconius butterflies, post-eclosion growth and experience dependent neuropil plasticity. J Comp Neurol (2016) 524 (9): 1747-1769.

Montgomery SH, Ott SR. Brain composition in Godyris zavaleta, a diurnal butterfly, reflects an increased reliance on olfactory information. J Comp Neurol (2015) 523 (6): 869-891.


Montgomery SH, Mundy NI, Barton RA. Brain evolution and development: adaptation, allometry and constraint. Proc Roy Soc B (2016) 283: 20160433.

Montgomery SH, Capellini I, Venditti C, Barton RA, Mundy NI. Adaptive evolution of four microcephaly genes and the evolution of brain size in anthropoid primates. Mol Biol Evol (2011) 28 (1): 625-638.

Montgomery SH, Capellini I, Barton RA, Mundy NI. Reconstructing the ups and downs of primate brain evolution: implications for adaptive hypotheses and Homo floresiensisBMC Biol (2010) 8 (1): 9.