Charismatic Minifauna

A recent publication (B. Misof, et al. 2014. Phylogenomics resolves the timing and pattern of insect evolution. Science 346 (6210): 763-767.) takes on the herculean task of finding when insects first evolved. This is a particularly vexing question because 1) insects are squishy and don’t fossilize well, and 2) the vast majority of the species on the planet are insects. This is an insect world, we just live in it.

The paper was summarized BRILLIANTLY on WIRED (here). Including my favorite quote:

“Making sense of the diversity of insects in collections has traditionally been a task for a lone expert, usually specializing in just one subset of a group. They become so identified with their study organisms, they may be introduced as “The Ant Man” or “The Wasp Woman.” (No taxonomists I know wear spandex tights and capes to work, for which I am profoundly grateful.)”

Find out about when insects evolved, when they diversified (surprisingly, it started PRIOR to the radiation of angiosperms) and more.


Look there, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a moth! It’s a…. hummingbird moth?

Last week NPR posted an excellent article about what can only be the coolest pollinator. Ever.

“like a flip-flop that doubles as a beer bottle opener; an optical illusion; a labradoodle; a frenemy, the hummingbird moth falls into that cryptic category of transformers in life that are more than one thing” – Linton Weeks ” What Exactly is that Birdlike Thing?”


Pollination syndromes point to species interactions present and past

Ruby-throated Hummingbird at Cardinal Flower

Want hummingbirds? Paint the town red. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region.

In my part of North America, spring is finally underway after a long slog of a winter. The trees lining the streets of my Minneapolis neighborhood are lacy-green with budding leaves, flowerbeds all over the University of Minnesota campus are yellow and red and pink with daffodils and tulips, and violets are popping up in the edges of lawns everywhere I look.

Of course, all of this colorful display isn’t for my benefit. Showy flowers are an adaptation to attract animal pollinators. Some flowers are quite precisely matched to a single species of pollinator, but most flowers have lots of visitors. These less specialized flowers are still adapted for their attractive function, though—and this is the origin of pollination syndromes.

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Research and teaching postdoc in the population genomics of mutualism

2010.04.05 - Samson out and about

One of your future colleagues in the Smith Lab, hard at work in the field.

Friend of the blog—and longtime collaborator of mine—Chris Smith recently landed an NSF CAREER grant for new research on the causes of evolutionary divergence within the Joshua tree-yucca moth mutualism—and he’s looking for a postdoc to help with it!

The proposed work will take advantage of new genomic resources for the genus Yucca—Joshua tree population genetics is about to get a lot more powerful than the 10 microsatellite loci I used for my dissertation research. And it will involve fieldwork in the Mojave Desert, which is objectively one of the most beautiful empty spaces on the map of North America. Chris is on the faculty of Willamette University, which is an undergraduate institution, so the postdoc position is also a unique opportunity to do basic research in close coordination with an undergraduate teaching program.

Moreover, I can personally recommend Chris as a mentor and collaborator—to the extent that I’ve turned out to be a pretty decent scientist, he’s one of the principal reasons why. (And to the extent that I haven’t, well, that’s a reflection on me, not him.)

The complete job description, and instructions on how to apply, are after the jump.

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One of these moths is not like the other … but does that matter to Joshua trees?

A Joshua tree flower, up close.

A Joshua tree flower, up close.

A huge diversity of flowering plants rely on animals to carry pollen from one flower to another, ensuring healthy, more genetically diverse offpsring. These animal-pollinated species are in a somewhat unique position, from an evolutionary perspective: they can become reproductively isolated, and to form new species, as a result of evolutionary or ecological change in an entirely different species.

Evolutionary biologists have had good reason to think that pollinators often play a role in the formation of new plant species since at least the middle of the 20th century, when Verne Grant observed that animal-pollinated plant species are more likely to differ in their floral characteristics than plants that move pollen around via wind. More recently, biologists have gone as far as to dissect the genetic basis of traits that determine which pollinator species are attracted to a flower—and thus, which flowers can trade pollen.

However, while it’s very well established that pollinators can maintain isolation between plant populations, we have much less evidence that interactions with pollinators help to create that isolation in the first place. One likely candidate for such pollinator-mediated speciation is Joshua tree, the iconic plant of the Mojave Desert.

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Pollinators to deceptive daisy: Fool me twice, shame on me

Gorteria diffusa

Gorteria diffusa. If its spots look like sexy female bee flies to you, you might be a bee fly yourself. Photo by Flickr/thehumofbees.

The South African daisy Gorteria diffusa has a means of attracting pollinators that is either a mean-spirited or brilliant, depending on how much you sympathize with the pollinators in question: its dark-spotted petals fool male bee flies (Megapalpus capensis) into mating with the flower. This is, of course, a fruitless exercise for the bee fly, but not so for the daisy, since the decieved males pick up pollen in the process, which they’ll transfer to another daisy when they’re fooled again.

This is a bit salacious, but this kind of sexual deception isn’t exactly rare among flowering plants. What makes G. diffusa more interesting, to an evolutionary biologist, is that not all populations of the daisy practice this deception. The pattern of G. diffusa‘s petals varies across its range—and not all petal patterns prompt the pollinators to hump the flower. Actually, on all but three of the various forms of G. diffusa, bee flies mostly just come to feed on nectar.

That poses the interesting evolutionary question of why some populations of G. diffusa have evolved to trick their pollinators, when so many others have not. A paper just released online at the journal Evolution attempts to answer that question—but its authors find more new questions than they do concrete answers.

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Notes from the field: What’s Chris doing to that Joshua tree?

ResearchBlogging.orgMy postdoctoral research is shaping up more and more to be hardcore bioinformatics; apart from some time spent trying to get a dozen species of peanut plants to grow in the greenhouse as part of a somewhat long-shot project I’m working on with an undergraduate research associate, I mostly spend my workday staring at my laptop, writing code. It’s work I enjoy, but it doesn’t often give me an excuse to interact directly with the study organism, much less get outdoors. So, when Chris Smith dropped the hint that he could use an extra pair of hands for fieldwork in the Nevada desert this spring, I didn’t need a lot of persuasion.

Chris is continuing a program of research he started back when he was a postdoc at the University of Idaho, and which I contributed to as part of my doctoral dissertation work. The central question of that research is, can interactions between two species help to create new biological diversity? And the specific species we’ve been looking at all these years are Joshua trees and the moths that pollinate them.

Joshua trees, the spiky icon of the Mojave desert, are exclusively pollinated by yucca moths, which lay their eggs in Joshua tree flowers, and whose larvae eat developing Joshua tree seeds. It’s a very simple, interdependent interaction—the trees only reproduce with the assistance of the moths, and the moths can’t raise larvae without Joshua tree flowers. So it’s particularly interesting that there are two species of these highly specialized moths, and they are found on Joshua trees that look … different. Some Joshua trees are tall and tree-ish, and some Joshua trees are shorter and bushy. Maybe more importantly for the moths, their flowers look different, too.

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