Socotran Adenium obesum
Evolutionary biologists are fascinated by islands. There are a number of reasons for this. Islands systems can act as natural evolutionary experiments. They are small, less biodiverse, and isolated, so their biota can often be treated as simplified models of more complex mainland ecosystems (e.g. Darwin’s finches on the island Daphne Major). Ecologically similar islands can also act as replicates, with related taxa playing out the same evolutionary scenarios over and over again in isolation (e.g. Caribbean Anolis). Or they can act as life preservers, providing isolated strongholds for ancient evolutionary lineages that have long been extinct in the rest of the world (e.g. the Tuatara of New Zealand).
The Socotra archipelago is a particularly interesting, but poorly studied island system. Socotra consists of four islands in the Indian Ocean. It is extremely isolated (150 miles from the horn of Africa, 240 miles from the Arabian Peninsula) yet it has a continental origin. That means it was once part of the supercontinent Gondwana and suggests that some species may have lived there since it first became an island (~17.6 million years ago). Socotra has a very high level of endemism, with 37% of its plant species and 90% of its reptiles occurring nowhere else. As the islands are very remote and in a politically unstable part of the world, most of this unique biodiversity has not been studied using modern techniques. The islands are rugged and mountainous, reaching 1500m elevation, and primarily classified as tropical desert, making for a fairly fantastical landscape. A recent paper by Goméz-Diaz et al. (2012) takes a broad-brush approach to characterizing a chunk of Socotra’s obscure diversity: the Hemidactylus geckos.
White gypsum sands: officially an ecological opportunity
Evidently they’re not willing to toot their own horns, so I’ll do it on their behalf: Two of our contributors, Simone Des Roches and Chris Smith, have brand-new publications in print, and both papers are open access, available to anyone who wants to take a look.
Simone’s paper makes the case that the gypsum sands of White Sands, New Mexico, create an “ecological release” for lizards living there, since reduced predator density and diversity on the white dunes lets the lizards use a wider range of habitat types, and achieve higher population density.
First, we provide evidence for ecological opportunity by demonstrating reduced species richness and abundance of potential competitors and predators at White Sands relative to nearby dark soils habitats. Second, we characterize ecological release at White Sands by demonstrating density compensation in the three White Sands lizard species and expanded resource use in White Sands Sceloporus undulatus.
Chris’s paper tests the hypothesis that Joshua trees have expanded their range northward since the last glacial maximum, drawing together many different data sets to find the same signal of population expansion.
Using a database of >5000 GPS records for Joshua trees, and multi-locus DNA sequence data from the Joshua tree and four species of yucca moth, we combined paleaodistribution modeling with coalescent-based analyses of demographic and phylgeographic history. We extensively evaluated the power of our methods to infer past population size and distributional changes by evaluating the effect of different inference procedures on our results, comparing our palaeodistribution models to Pleistocene-aged packrat midden records, and simulating DNA sequence data under a variety of alternative demographic histories.