redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online
Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley plan to collect insect and spider DNA from several Hawaiian volcanoes in order to better understand the origins of biodiversity, officials from the school announced on Wednesday.
According to Robert Sanders of the university’s media relations department, Rosemary Gillespie, head of the UC Berkeley Essig Museum of Entomology, will use a new $2 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to study how the hexapods and chelicerates explored their environments and settled into new niches, and how that led to the eventual increase in biodiversity.
“One of the most puzzling features of the high diversity of species on remote islands is that these species almost certainly arose from one or very few colonizers,” Gillespie, who is also a professor of environmental science, policy and management, said. “How was variability regained after such genetic bottlenecks, and how did it give rise to ecological diversity?
“The islands of Hawaii are a great system for exploring how biodiversity changes in response to ecological change because it provides a chronological sequence of habitats from 0 to 1 million years ago on the Big Island, and further back in time as we go on to the older islands,” she added. “The basic question is, ‘How do you go from an empty habitat on a newly emerged island to a complex mixture of populations like we see on the Big Island of Hawaii, where things are just starting, to a fairly discrete set of species like we see on Maui?'”
To answer that question, Gillespie and her colleague will begin by collecting DNA from the five volcanoes that make up the island of Hawaii, which was colonized by insects and arachnids over the past one million years, Sanders said.
They are attempting to discover how different species and populations adapted on volcanoes of various ages, as well as how they continually adapt to an environment that is frequently undergoing changes due to eruptions, landslides, and other geological events and how they ultimately evolve into “defined and recognizable species.”
“They hope to find out how quickly animals diverge in these new environments, and also whether the structure of the communities changes in a predictable way over time,” Sanders explains. “This latter component makes use of a sophisticated ecological theory that looks at whether properties of communities are predictable.”
“We are trying to see which animals get there first — something that eats plants or animals, dead or alive, for example — and whether the pattern of arrival and the community thus formed is predictable,” Gillespie added. “Then we can see how the community of organisms thus assembled might allow its members to diversify.”
Along with Gillespie, members of the research team include John Harte, professor of energy and resources; Patrick O´Grady, associate professor of environmental science, policy, & management; Rasmus Nielsen, professor of integrative biology; and Neo Martinez, an affiliate of the energy and resources group; all of whom hail from UC Berkeley.
Collaborators from other institutions and organizations include Cornell University evolutionary biologist Kerry Shaw, British Museum evolutionary biologist Diana Percy, University of Hawaii at Hilo evolutionary biologist Donald Price, and University of Maryland community ecologist Daniel Gruner.