Blackwater river…approximate Bayesian computation…dawn song…genomic islands…wing chord…target DNA enrichment…
My life as an evolutionary biologist straddles two worlds. I study the comparative phylogeography of Amazonian birds, and on the one hand my research involves laboratory and computational methods that push the limits of new technologies and analytical techniques, and on the other, expeditions to the tropics that are nearly indistinguishable from the natural history work conducted by Victorian era biologists. I am a PhD student at Louisiana State University, and for most of the year my work is in the lab and at my desk. For several months of the year, however, my work is general ornithological collecting expeditions to the Amazon Basin.
Every Friday at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! our contributors pass around links to new scientific results, or science-y news, or videos of adorable wildlife, that they’re most likely to bring up while waiting in line for a latte.
First of all, my deepest apologies for the lateness of this post. As you may know I am a 4th year medical student and today was Match Day and I was deep in the throws of celebrating the completion of 4 years of medical education as well as learning where I will be training for the next three years in Family Medicine. So, without further adieu, your links for this week.
From Noah, a video documenting several scientists as they inventory one of the worlds most biodiverse locations, the Yasuni Biosphere Reserve.
Finally, in the spirit of March Madness, from Devin comes a battle of the Mammals. “Mammal March Madness from the Mammal’s Suck blog. Although the tournament is purely fictional, the facts and natural history information given out during the extended live tweet rounds are amazing. The first rounds are already complete, but tune in for the exciting finals. Live action via twitter: @Mammals_Suck and general info via the website:”
A final few propitious presentations from the Evolution meetings in Ottawa:
Kirsten Bowser is running puffin faeces through next-generation sequencing to identify what the adorable seabirds eat—and she’s already found some prey species that wouldn’t be easily identified just by watching what puffins bring back to their nests.
Brian Counterman showed that hybridization between subspecies of the South American butterlfy Heliconius erato with different wing patterns can transfer wing patterning between subspecies—mostly by transferring a single chunk of DNA that doesn’t code for any protein, but performs a regulatory function. What’s more, the same region is being moved between multiple pairs of hybridizing H. erato subspecies.
The rise of big data is changing ecology and evolutionary biology, along with the rest of the life sciences.
This week’s post is a guest contribution by David Hembry, who recently finished his Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley, working on coevolution and diversification of the obligate pollination mutualism between leafflower plants (Phyllantheae) and leafflower moths (Epicephala). He will be starting a postdoctoral fellowship at Kyoto University in the fall.
Last month, I filed my PhD dissertation, bringing to an end an intellectual and personal journey that began seven years ago in the summer of 2005. I know a lot more now than I did then, and I know a lot more about the boundaries of what I don’t know, too. But not only has my knowledge changed—evolution and ecology looks a lot different now than it did seven years ago when I was planning my dissertation research. At some point, and often multiple points, in the process of getting a PhD, everybody wonders whether what they’re doing is already out of date. Some of the transformations in the field I think I could see coming. For instance, it was clear in 2005 that computational power would keep increasing, phylogenetics would be used more and more to ask interesting questions, more and more genomes would be available for analysis, and evolutionary developmental biology was on the rise. It was unfortunately also predictable that it would be possible to study climate change in real time over PhD-length timescales. And although the 2008 global financial crisis didn’t help, it was clear that funding and jobs were going to be more competitive than they had been for our predecessors.
But there were a number of things I didn’t see coming, and which have made the field look radically different than it was back in 2005. Looking back, and looking towards the future, here are the changes I think were most important (from an evolutionist’s perspective), and what I think they mean for young scientists.
My 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.
Lake Gunn in the fiordlands. Lots of tetraploids and triploids in there!
Hello from the land of Kiwis (the fruit, the bird and the people)! As I mentioned in my last post, I’m a coevolution nut, and down here with all the kiwis there is also an excellent system for studying coevolutionary interactions between hosts and parasites. So during the most frigid part of the terrible winter in Washington state, I take off to the sunshine and summer of the southern hemisphere to do my field work! It’s a rough job, I know.
A little over a quarter century ago, Curt Lively, noted this adorable little New Zealand snail (Potamopyrgus antipodarum) has sexual and asexual forms that coexist at varying frequencies in lakes across New Zealand. This variation suggests that there are some environments where it is advantageous to reproduce asexually and some environments where it is better to be sexual.
From then on P. antipodarumhas become an excellent system to study the evolution and maintanence of sexual reproduction, a long standing debate in evolutionary biology (See Maynard Smith 1978, Williams 1975, Bell 1982, Kondershov 1988).