Our research focus concerns one of the most central questions in evolutionary biology: what is the origin of biodiversity? We are fundamentally interested in the mechanisms that create and maintain differences among individuals or among populations / species. These differences can be called discontinuities in nature and include ecological, morphological and genetic/genomic discontinuities. We use a combination of field and lab experiments, as well as surveys of molecular genetic variation to test hypotheses on the mechanisms that drive the evolution of these discontinuities. Below are short summaries of some current projects.

Hybridization and Speciation in Lycaeides Butterflies

The Lycaeides species complex is a polytypic group of butterflies (Family Lycaenidae) that is an ideal system for investigating the mechanisms driving differentiation and the evolution of reproductive isolation because this group contains a number of closely-related entities with a history of isolation, secondary contact and hybridization. These butterflies exhibit lycaeidesextensive morphological and ecological variation. Across North America, evidence for multiple Pleistocene-aged refugia is evident from phylogeographic patterns of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and nuclear markers. Where these refugial populations meet, gene exchange via hybridization has occurred. In these zones of contact, called suture zones, we find evidence of mtDNA introgression and genomic admixture with multiple potential cases of homoploid hybrid species, which have rarely been demonstrated in animals. Ecological field experiments and population genetic and genomic analyses are used to investigate the evolution and maintenance of morphological and ecological variation, the mechanisms by which reproductive isolation evolves, and the relative contributions of natural selection and other factors that shape hybrid genomes. Collaborators include: Zach Gompert (Utah State), Jim Fordyce (U Tennessee),  Matt Forister (U Nevada), Lauren Lucas (Texas State/Utah State), Alex Buerkle (U Wyoming). Read more: gompert14 nice13 lucas08 forister11

Ecology and Evolution of Pipevine Swallowtails

Pipevine Swallowtails, Battus philenor, are at the center of a mimicry complex in North America. These butterflies are specialists on pipevine plants (Aristolochia sp.) and sequester aristolochic acids which larvae obtain by eating the plants. These toxic alkaloidsbattus protect caterpillars and adults from predation. Current research on the pipevines is focused on understanding geographical variation in plant toxicity and larval sequestration ability and consequences in a tri-trophic context (plants – caterpillars – natural enemies). We are also interested in life history variation, including clutch size and diapause dynamics, the adaptive significance of larval color variation and the phylogeographic history of this species in North America. Ph.D. student Kate Bell is in charge of this project. Most of this research has been done in collaboration with Jim Fordyce at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Read more: dimarco12 fordyce08 nice06

Evolution and Genomic Architecture of a Trophic Polymorphism

PiscivorousminckmorphThe cichlids of Cuatro Ciénagas, Mexico, exhibit a trophic polymorphism. Individuals can be classified as either papilliform or molarifom. Papilliform individuals have much smaller, needle-like teeth and feed on detritus while molariform individuals have larger molar-like teeth and feed primarily on snails. In order to understand the evolution and maintenance of these two morphotypes we carried out a population genomics approach to investigate genetic differentiation both between morphotypes and between localities within the valley. Preliminary results suggest that there is ongoing gene flow between the two morphotypes. Future work will explore the underlying genetic architecture of jaw morphology using a genome wide association study. This work is primarily being conducted by Ph.D candidate Kate Bell in collaboration with Dr. Darrin Hulsey.


The Evolutionary and Ecological Consequences of Aggregative Feeding

Hackberry butterflies or Emperor butterflies (Asterocampa sp. ) are common in southwest United States. The females of both species utilize Hackberry trees (Celtis sp.) as their host plant. Asterocampa celtis (A. celtis) and A. clyton produce different clutch sizes. A. celtis females lay their eggs singly in clutches from 1-20 eggs, while A. clyton females lay their eggs in stacked pyramid shaped clusters of up to 100.  Correspondingly, A. celtis larvae feed individually, while A. clyton larvae feed in large, dense aggregations. There are likely advantages and disadvantages to the egg laying strategies of both A. celtis and A. clyton. By laying large clusters of eggs, A. clyton might gain the advantage of gregarious feeding, but might incur the cost of increased parasitism or predation on the more visible, larger clusters of eggs. This alternative strategy and its potential tradeoffs will be the focus of this research using manipulative experiments to compare the benefits of aggregative feeding to caterpillars feeding singly.

Evolutionary Developmental Biology of Karst Phenotypes in Salamanders

The south central Texas Eurycea clade is composed of species with structural variations resulting in a unique continuum of karst morphologies. The variation exhibited by the clade suggests differential gene expression and regulation, rather than different genes, is responsible for the development of drastically different morphologies, particularly since some of the variation occurs within single species. Therefore, these salamanders present an ideal system in which to address the question “What are the underlying differences in regulation of Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 11.03.19 AMdevelopmental genes responsible for differing morphologies?” While extensive work has been done with a cave fish species (Astyanax mexicanus), salamanders, the only other aquatic cave vertebrate and the only aquatic cave tetrapod, have yet to be explored.

Past research done by Ruben Tovar, has identified Pax6 and Shh involvement in ocular development between a surface species (E. sosorum) and a subterranean species (E. rathbuni). Eye development is not completely predicated on the sole role of one or two genes, but rather a multitude of genes working in harmony through development. Taking into account the complexity of developmental processes, it is beneficial to adopt a holistic approach to compare all the genes expressed between two drastically different developmental outcomes. To better understand the molecular mechanisms responsible for differing expression, and to gain a holistic insight to the multitude of genes being expressed, we are employing a transcriptomic approach to compare all genes being expressed at various comparable developmental stages. Importantly, transcriptome analysis will result in the quantification of all genes involved with eye development, allowing for a holistic analysis and the identification of novel candidate genes responsible for ocular development.