Species and populations

A fundamental aspect of my research is the delimitation of species and populations. This underpins our studies of evolutionary processes and is further motivated by the need for science-based conservation. An understanding of species-level diversity and genetically distinct populations is crucial for implementing meaningful management plans and protected areas.


 

Our study of emperor penguins found four genetically distinct populations. Only one of these resides in a Marine Protected Area.

Population genomics of penguins

In a recent study we compared patterns of population differentiation across five species of Antarctic and sub-Antarctic penguins using genome-wide SNPs. Our findings suggest remarkable dispersal abilities for some species. For example, king penguin colonies separated by more than 7000 km of open ocean are genetically indistinguishable, suggesting migration of individuals across extraordinary distances. Our results also highlight the limited protections for some species. Emperor penguins are arranged in four genetic populations, yet only one of these is currently protected by a Marine Protected Area. This research is a close collaboration with Dr Gemma Clucas of Cornell University.

 

The discovery of a new species of bird in Madagascar, Newtonia lavarambo, was made possible by the study skin collections of the Field Museum of Natural History.

Species discovery in Madagascar

Madagascar is renowned as a biodiversity hotspot. Yet, there have been very few genetic studies of the island’s endemic birds and species richness may be underestimated. To address this we are using a combination of phylogenomics (of UCEs), ecological niche modelling, and statistical comparisons of morphology, to accurately delimit species within Madagascar’s endemic birds. This approach has led to the discovery of a cryptic species of Newtonia, and the elevation of a sub-species of Schetba to full species. These findings suggest there may be more species awaiting discovery, which is concerning in light of ongoing deforestation of the island. Conservation plans rely on species-level designations. It is therefore crucial to continue efforts to comprehend the full breadth of avian species diversity before it is too late. This ongoing work is an international collaboration with Association Vahatra, the Field Museum of Natural History, and the University of Minnesota.