Eric Fortune

SENSING AND CONTROL: Bio-Cellular Sensing
Associate Professor of Biological Sciences


Associate Professor Eric Fortune, Federated Department of Biological Sciences, comes to NJIT from Johns Hopkins University. He has always been fascinated by animal behavior, from the rolling of dung by dung beetles to the unbelievable vocal performances of lyrebirds. Fortune’s academic background includes a bachelor’s in the biological sciences from the University of Chicago and a PhD earned in that school’s Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy.

In elementary school and beyond, Fortune asked a simple question, how did these behaviors evolve? This interest in animal behavior and evolution was solidified when he had an amazing experience courtesy of his grandparents — they brought him to the Galápagos Islands when he was a senior in high school. That experience has led to a career studying the mechanisms of animal behavior, and has brought him repeatedly back to Ecuador and the Galápagos. He has now brought over 250 students to the Galápagos, and conducts research at sites in the Amazon basin and cloud forest habitats of eastern Ecuador.

Despite rapid advances in technological prowess, Fortune asserts that we neither understand how animals achieve the level of precision in their movements and coordination, nor can we build artificial systems, such as robots, which perform behaviors that are anywhere near as robust and reliable as animals. In his laboratory, Fortune studies the mechanisms of animal behavior. His studies include careful measurements of natural animal behavior which, when coupled with sophisticated quantitative approaches, can be applied in brain experiments to discover the cellular mechanisms used by the brain to control behavior. Engineers can, in turn, translate these insights gained from the animal world into improved control systems for use in robots and prosthetic devices.

The focus of Fortune’s research has recently been revolutionized by exciting results from investigation of the neurophysiological basis of cooperation in a unique species of Andean songbird — the plain-tailed wren. This work, published in the journal Science, demonstrates that a premotor neuronal circuit encodes the cooperative output of a pair of duetting birds rather than each individual’s own, autogenous motor output. This finding will be the basis for a series of continuing studies that will include chronic recordings in pairs of wrens as they duet and intracellular analyses of the song-control circuits. Fortune plans to pursue this research at study sites in Ecuador during the summers, as the wrens cannot be exported.

Fortune also plans to continue complimentary research on weakly electric fish. He is studying the interaction of social behavior and locomotor control in the central nervous system of these fishes. Fundamentally, this work examines the cellular and circuit-level mechanisms by which fish cooperate through the control of their electric field and their locations relative to others of the same species nearby.

In addition to the articles Fortune has written about his research for numerous peer-reviewed journals, his work has been brought to the attention of a wider audience through reporting such as “Wrens’ Brains Are Wired for Duets” in the popular Science news magazine produced by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.