Evolution, both previous and current, guides ecological processes and helps to determine ecological community structure. Using game-theoretic models called G-functions, we can model both the ecology and evolution of entire communities, often starting from one species. Using this technique, we can explore a diverse set of questions in ecology and evolution, all under the umbrella question “Why does nature look like it does?” We then test our predictions through observational and experimental data, primarily via collaborations with others but also within the lab.

Evolution’s Role in Structuring Ecologically Competitive Communities

Evolution and the Maintenance of Coexistence

Ecological coexistence is defined as a set of interacting species persisting through space and time. Ecological processes like population reductions can enable species coexistence by limiting competitive pressure. Trait evolution can also drive coexistence by limiting competition through niche partitioning. We seek to understand how the tension between stabilizing and disruptive evolution drives trait distribution to ensure coexistence. We are also using this work to predict changes in community structure with shifting environmental conditions like climate change.

Competition, Adaptive Specialization, and Trait Variation

A species’ niche can be thought of as the resource space it occupies. The smaller the space, the more specialized it is said to be. Many processes believed to promote or hinder specialization. We are exploring the role that competition, both intraspecific and interspecific, has in determining specialization. As well, we are also looking at how its evolution affects resulting community structure.

The Evolution of Social Cooperation and its Ecological Consequences

Sociality and cooperation between individuals is a common occurrence amongst animals. Individuals will associate with each other to obtain greater fitness benefits. The origin and evolution of cooperation is a much sought after question in evolution. There also remains the question of how sociality affects ecological dynamics. Cooperation creates a complex interplay between behavior and fitness potentially leading to ecological instability. We explore the modes of social transition (solitary to colony), how they are influenced by the environment, and what how it impacts a species and the resulting environment.

Ecological and Environmental Conditions for Mutualism Evolution and Diversification

Mutualisms are considered to be one of the least stable ecological interactions due to their propensity to collapse ecologically, be susceptible to cheating invaders, and fail to maintain variation. And yet, they are widespread and one of the most important ecological interactions. We examine the ecological and environmental conditions that lead to the evolution and diversification of mutualism, including host-host competition and sanctioning behavior. We do so using the plant-microbial symbiosis as an example, specifically the relationship between the pea plant (Pisum sativum) and rhizobium bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi.

Vigilance Behavior in Predatory-Prey Communities

Behavior is a key component of understanding ecological systems. This is because behavior is flexible and can determine the strength and type of relationship between organisms. We are interested in how flexible vigilance behavior can structure predator-prey systems. In collaboration with other people, we explore how this adaptive vigilance can structure predator-prey communities in marine and parasitized systems.

Adaptations, Macroevolution, and Biogeography

An organism’s adaptations strongly determine the potential environments in which it can live, its fundamental niche, and govern its interactions with other species which then shapes the realized niche. This could potentially happen at higher taxonomic levels whereby the adaptations common to a clade determine its biogeography. We are exploring this possibility by analyzing the biogeography of three families of convergent nectarivores — the New World hummingbirds, Old World sunbirds, and Worldwide hawkmoths. In addition, we simulate macroevolutionary processes using G-functions. This work is currently not a significant focus but is open for analysis to a driven and independent researcher who wishes to join the lab.

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