As an empirically-minded evolutionary biologist and ornithologist, I work to describe patterns of avian biodiversity and the processes responsible for them. What role does selection across environmental gradients play in speciation in birds? How do differences in dispersal ability affect population genetic structure? To address these questions, I use a variety of tools from computational genomics to basic natural history. A member of the Klicka Lab, I’m particularly interested in the birds and ecosystems of the broader New Guinea region and western North America.
My dissertation work investigates the role of natural selection in the recent divergence of New Guinean tree kingfishers Syma torotoro and Syma megarhyncha, sister species that replace each other along elevational gradients. While elevational replacements are widespread in tropical mountains, which are often the site of dramatic changes in environment along elevational gradients, it’s unclear whether differential selection pressures across these gradients are sufficient to cause speciation in groups generally thought to have high gene flow, such as birds. To test this hypothesis in Syma, I’m investigating island-wide patterns of genetic and morphological differentiation in both taxa, conducting species delimitation, and reconstructing the phylogenetic relationships among geographically distinct populations. I’ve also been evaluating methods to collect genome-wide SNP data from museum specimens.
Figure courtesy of CJ Battey and K. Epperly
The basis of all organic evolution is a change in the allele frequencies of a specific gene in a specific population. Phylogeography, or the spatially-explicit study of genetic variation across landscapes, is therefore a powerful tool to shed light on the correlation between geographic and environmental processes and genetic differentiation. Previously, I’ve studied influence of dispersal ability and migratory route on phylogeographic patterns in White-eyes and Painted Buntings.
Natural history museum specimen collections are an underutilized source of huge amounts of biological data, with the potential to inform research in fields ranging from systematics and taxonomy to virology and toxicology. In addition to using vouchered tissues in phylogenetic research and actively contributing to collecting efforts and specimen preparation at the Burke Museum, I have used aggregated specimen records to infer migratory patterns in Painted Buntings (Passerina ciris). Similarly, despite centuries of effort, we lack basic distributional, ecological, and behavioral data for bird species in many regions of the world. Filling in these gaps with field observations will always be a fundamental part of my research program.