Lab Research

1. ADAPTATION AND LIFE HISTORY EVOLUTION

American pikaBiologists have long appreciated the importance of preserving the ability of organisms to adapt to changing environments, yet have been limited in their capacity to quantify and use adaptive genetic variation for prioritizing populations for management. Until recently, our ability to directly investigate Kokaneeadaptive genetic variation has been limited to a handful of model organisms studied under artificial conditions. Population genomics combines genomic technologies with population genetics theory to provide a framework for detecting genome-wide associations between segregating variation and fitness-related traits in natural populations. This approach seeks to identify loci that exhibit signatures of selection in comparative genomic scans of populations exhibiting varying phenotypes. Candidate loci are identified as those that show “outlier” behavior, exhibiting very high or low divergence relative to levels found at a large set of markers compared within and between populations. Our research entails some of the first applications of population genomics to the study of adaptive divergence within systems of conservation significance, particularly kokanee salmon and American pika. Using a variety of approaches including RNAseq and RADseq, this work has provided basic insights into life-history evolution and the genetic basis of adaptation within natural populations at multiple spatial scales (local, regional and landscape), and demonstrated applications to fisheries management, species at risk protection, and the biotic impacts of rapid climate change.

2. CONSERVATION UNITS AND CRYPTIC DIVERSITY

Bahama parrotConservation biology emerged as a crisis discipline, with the goal of applying best available science towards stemming the rate of biodiversity loss. As the resources available for protection do not match the scope of the threats, significant efforts have been directed towards developing a framework for identifying and prioritizing “units of conservation”. Work in the ECGL provides substantial theoretical and empirical contributions to this research area, demonstrated in a wide range of vertebrate species of conservation concern including Amazon parrots, painted turtles, monk parakeets, Great Basin spadefoot and others. Likewise, genetic and genomic approaches have contributed to the discovery of cryptic species diversity that, in some cases, has identified novel taxa of conservation interest. As part of an international team of scientists and managers, we have been involved in on-going research involving Galápagos tortoises, revealing cryptic diversity at risk and the “rediscovery” of species previously considered extinct.

3. EX SITU CONSERVATION GENETICS

Galapagos tortoise hatchlingsBiodiversity conservation strategies are most effective when directed towards protecting populations and ameliorating threats within their native habitat (i.e. in situ). Yet, in situ strategies may not be sufficient in all cases, requiring the management of populations outside of their native range (i.e. ex situ) using tools such as captive breeding, repatriation and/or head-starting. In the most extreme cases, where species are extinct in the wild and only persist in captivity, ex situ management may represent the only viable strategy for preventing their complete loss. Work in the ECGL uses genetic, genomic and epigenomic information to test theory underlying conventional ex situ population management and to refine strategies for maximizing founder genetic variation, equalizing founder contribution to the population’s gene pool, and minimizing fitness consequences for meeting conservation program goals. Study systems in this research area include Galápagos tortoises, Amur tigers, Lowland tapirs and Amazon parrots.