Basil, Jennifer

Academic Appointments:

Professor, Biology Department, Brooklyn College, The City University of New York
Faculty, Biology (Evolution, Ecology and Behavior) and Psychology PhD Programs, The Graduate Center, The City University of New York


Ph.D. (Zoology) University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA, USA
M.S. (Zoology), University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA, USA

Research Focus:

My focus on the Cancer center comes from my experience as a breast-cancer survivor. I benefited from state-of-the art clinical trials for Herceptin after my diagnosis with an aggressive form of the disease, prevalent in younger women. Since 2004 I have been heavily involved in both outreach and advocacy and bring that experience and energy to the Center.

My central interest is the evolution of behavioral and brain complexity, specifically learning and memory. Why do some lineages show a heavy investment in brains while others do not? We focus on the Cephalopod Molluscs because they have the largest brains of invertebrates (allometrically scaling with vertebrates), show complex behaviors, and importantly have a living representative of the ancestral condition: the Chambered Nautilus. My research focuses on changes in learning and memory capabilities over the course of invertebrate evolution, and the origin and function of supporting neural and sensory systems in species with large brains. I often perform comparative work among octopuses, cuttlefishes and Nautilus to determine what features of brains and behavior are analogous and which are homologous.

Another critical component of my research is to determine how the environment and evolution have shaped the learning and memory capabilities of animals that primarily rely upon nonvisual information to make navigation decisions. My two model systems are the Chambered Nautilus (for the sense of smell) and the freshwater crayfish, Procambarus clarkii (for the sense of touch). I focus on what kinds of sensory information animals collect from their environment, what they remember of that information and for how long, and how they then use that information to make important orientation decisions.

We pursue three interrelated lines of research in my laboratory. First, we investigate learning and memory capabilities in nautilids, a monophyletic group in the cephalopod molluscs that retains many pleisiomorphic features. Comparative study of the  complex behavior across all cephalopods may help us to understand the evolution of neural and behavioral complexity in the entire class. We have found evidence of convergence between cephalopod brains and vertebrate brains, despite vast differences in the components comprising the brain (neurons, axons). We pursue studies of Pavlovian conditioning, spatial navigation, tactile learning, chemical learning, and chemical signaling in intraspecific behavior, while also attempting to identify the compounds involved. Second, we investigate the neural underpinnings of these complex behaviors: where does this learning take place, identifying analogous and/or homologous learning centers in cephalopods, labeling of neuronal activity during conditioning, whole-brain recordings, and neuroanatomy and neurochemistry (in collaboration with Dr. Binyamin Hochner, Hebrew University). Third, we use crayfishes as a model for the haptic sense, or guided tactile behavior. Here we pair classical conditioning and open-field methods to measure haptic contributions to learning and memory of the environment in a relatively “simple” neuroanatomical model. These algorithms are then implemented in “Craybot” a tactile robot in development with Tony Prescott’s laboratory at the University of Sheffield.


Selected Publications:

  1. Barord, G. , M. Beydoun, P. Ward, *V. Li, *S. Bruce and Basil. Foraging and Scavenging Behavior of Nautilus (Cl. Cephalopoda): A Synthetic Approach, Biological Bulletin, under review.
  2. Ashfaq, M., Lewandowski, N. and Basil. Endogenous circadian rhythms in activity in the Chambered Nautilus. Ethology, under review.\
  3. Barord, G., Ju, Cheng Hui, *Derman, R., *Vargas, T, and Basil. Dual memory streams in Chambered Nautilus: Beacon homing overshadows route learning in a spatial task. Animal Behavior, under review.
  4. Basil, J. and R Crook. (2017) Learning and Memory in the Living Fossil, the Chambered Nautilus. In, Physiology of Molluscs, A.S. Saleuddin and S. T. Mukai, eds.  Apple Academic Press.
  5. *Shomrat, T., Turchetti-Maia, A. L., Stern-Mentch, N., Basil, J. A., & Hochner, B. (2016). The vertical lobe of cephalopods: an attractive brain structure for understanding the evolution of advanced learning and memory systems. Journal of Comparative Physiology A, 201(9), 947-956.
  6. Fiorito, G., Affuso, A., Anderson, D. B., Basil, J., Bonnaud, L., Botta, G…. (2015) & Guidelines for the Care and Welfare of Cephalopods in Research -A consensus based on an initiative by CephRes, FELASA and the Boyd Group. Laboratory Animals 49 (2 Suppl):1-90 · September 2015
  7. Fiorito, G., Affuso, A., Anderson, D. B., Basil, J., Bonnaud, L., Botta, G…. & (2014) Cephalopods in neuroscience: regulations, research and the 3Rs. Invertebrate Neuroscience, 14 (1): 13-36.

Recent Funding:

  • Binational Israel-USA Foundation: “Functional mapping of learning-induced activity in the CNS of Nautilus, an ancient cephalopod” PI (Dr Binyamin Hochner, CoPI).
  • National Science Foundation: “Developing a STEM Curriculum for Early College Programs: A High School To College Continuum.” Co-PI with Chaya Gurwitz, Sophia P. Perdikaris, Theodore Raphan and Elizabeth I Sklar (Brooklyn College).