Research: My research program involves using molecular genetics and bioinformatics to study mechanisms of population differentiation and speciation, primarily in birds. My research team is contributing to the understanding of evolution and ecology at several levels:
Mechanisms of population differentiation and speciation-Inferring evolutionary processes from contemporary biological patterns is notoriously difficult. We are using state-of-the-art methods to test explicit hypotheses regarding mechanisms of population differentiation and speciation. Studies include tests of some standard assumptions that have rarely been addressed with rigour (e.g. that isolation in Pleistocene refugia leads to population differentiation), and have yielded some surprising results. For example, results of Ph.D. student Tammy Steeves’ work on masked boobies suggests that philopatry alone is sufficient to result in population differentiation in tropical seabirds. Most excitingly, Ph.D. student Andrea Smith and visiting researcher Elena Gomez-Diaz found clear evidence for sympatric speciation in storm-petrels.
Conservation.-Effective protection of endangered species requires knowledge of how genetic variation is distributed within and among local populations. Several of our studies involve species that are at risk of extinction, and so have direct implications for conservation. For example, M.Sc. student Joseph Brown’s recent work on peregrine falcons revealed that the DDT-imposed population bottleneck had little effect on genetic diversity within Canadian falcons (they have always had low diversity), but that reintroduction efforts actually resulted in the creation of a new subspecies! Similarly, work by research associate Dr. Tim Birt has helped to define population units for conservation of marbled murrelets.
Development of molecular and analytical tools.-Both the advancement of evolutionary and ecological knowledge and the conservation of biodiversity require efficient and sensitive methods for assaying DNA sequence variation. We are helping to solve this need. For example, we developed PCR primers and protocols to screen variation in over 30 introns in vertebrates; PhD student Gabriela Ibarguchi developed both an elegant method to discriminate nuclear copies from true mitochondrial copies of mtDNA, as well as a simple yet powerful statistical method to detect mutations and null alleles in microsatellite data; and M.Sc. student Hollie Walsh adapted classical power analysis to phylogenetic analyses of molecular data so that researchers can test whether a polytomy is an artifact of insufficient data.
Systematics.-Sound phylogenies are the foundation for solid studies of ecology, behaviour, and evolution. Our phylogenetic studies of the Alcidae and Sulidae are among my most highly cited papers. Furthermore, several of our studies have demonstrated the existence of cryptic species or the need for taxonomic revisions.
Some Recent Publications: