From strawberry poison dart frogs to Trinidadian guppies
By Erin Gerrity
10.30.20 | RESEARCH
Postdoctoral fellow Yusan Yang shares her path to Washington University and her belief that biology is not simply a formula or rule set to be followed.
Yusan Yang recently joined the Biology Department as a Living Earth Collaborative Postdoctoral Fellow. She is originally from Taiwan where she completed her undergrad education. Her focus shifted from physics and chemistry to biology in high school and college. The discovery that biology was not simply a formula or rule set to be followed, but rather a discipline that allowed room for change, was an inspiration point for that transition of interest.
“Early on, in middle school and high school, people often think biology is a subject of pure memorization, but I think actually there is a lot of logic behind the phenomenon that we see even though there is always exception in biology. I think that is really beautiful. This realization attracted me to dig deeper into why things are the way they are and why things evolved this way,” explained Yang.
Yusan began graduate school at Tulane University in New Orleans, but after one year, the Richards-Zawacki lab moved to the University of Pittsburgh, where Yusan completed her PhD dissertation on sexual selection and phenotypic divergence in the polymorphic strawberry poison dart frog (Oophaga pumilio).
“You don’t always find things that are the same as your hypotheses and that’s okay because that’s sometimes how you find new things or new directions in your research. For example, poison dart frogs have really strong color biases in terms of their behavior, so when the female is choosing a mate, she pays attention to color, and when the males are fighting, they pay attention to color, too.”
“We actually discovered that this behavior did not come from their genetics but instead comes from learning. So when the tadpoles are being fed by their mother, they imprint on their mother’s color, and that’s how they learn their color biases. I think that’s one of the things that is surprising but also really cool,” said Yang.
As an LEC postdoc at WashU, Yusan has 4 different mentors, with disciplines spanning ecology, evolution, neuroscience and economics. The collaborative nature of the program and opportunities to learn new things from a variety of people attracted her to the WashU community. Yusan’s interest mainly lies in the evolution of animal coloration and the evolution of their mating behaviors.
She is currently exploring how genetic and environmental influences on mating behavior modulate ecological and evolutionary processes in Trinidadian guppies in collaboration with ecologists Swanne Gordon and Andrés López-Sepulcre, neuroethologist Bruce Carlson, and economist Paulo Natenzon.
“I’m an evolutionary biologist, interested in how evolution works. When we are first learning about evolution, this is the general introduction we usually get: there are variations in the populations and because of environmental pressure on different phenotypes, some die, some survive, some reproduce more, and these variations are passed on to the next generation and so we get evolution. We had this non-spoken assumption that only traits that are inherited mattered in evolution, but we are starting to realize more and more that things that change within the organism’s lifetime also impact evolution.”
“I am trying to fundamentally add to what we understood about the evolution process by looking at how experiences that one organism or one individual or different individuals have in their lifetime change the evolutionary trajectory of that population,” Yang explained.
Yusan’s proposed research had both field and lab components. Plans to test some of the field components last May were canceled due to COVID restrictions, so she started with the lab component instead. Hopefully next year or next season, this research will resume at Tyson Research Center, using the mesocosm stream that Swanne Gordon and Andres’ López-Sepulcre are building. Yusan hopes to do onsite fieldwork in Trinidad as well at some point to study the guppies in their natural environment.
From pigeon stalker to squirrel chaser: Elizabeth Carlen studies urban wildlife in St. Louis
By Erin Gerrity
7.9.21 | RESEARCH
Elizabeth Carlen is a Living Earth Collaborative postdoc and NSF postdoctoral fellow working in the Losos lab at Washington University.
She completed her PhD in Jason Munshi-South’s Lab at Fordham University in New York City. Munshi-South is at the forefront of the field of urban evolution, which examines how organisms evolve in response to urbanization.
“We previously assumed that evolution was a really slow process, taking millennia to occur. What we’ve been finding recently is that it can actually happen very quickly. The relatively new concept of urban evolution allowed me to bring all these parts of my life together— my love of cities and people, and my desire to study animals—and work in this really cool new field,” Carlen said.
Fordham University’s location was the perfect place for Carlen to start her urban evolution career. Carlen remarked that New Yorkers would walk right by her on the street, without even noticing that she was catching pigeons with a net gun and taking blood samples because it was “guaranteed not the weirdest thing they had seen that day!” While the average New Yorker may have passed her by, she became known as the “Pigeon Stalker” a title bestowed upon her by the New York Times and Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update even featured her research.
Carlen’s work in St. Louis and the surrounding area will focus on squirrels and how they may be evolving and adapting to urbanization. She will compare a variety of urban squirrel populations to squirrels in more suburban and rural areas, including Tyson Research Center.
“Across St. Louis, I’ll be looking at how environmental racism influences the population structure of squirrels. We know that St. Louis has this long history of racism which impacts where illegal dumping occurs, where pesticides are sprayed, where parks are taken care of, and where street trees are planted. All of these features influence the physical environment, and subsequently, the flora and fauna of that area,” Carlen explained. In a short time, she’s already made connections with community members who are recommending neighborhoods and places for her to find squirrels.
One thing that Carlen enjoys about working as a biologist in cities is providing opportunities for spontaneous learning. “One of the best things about studying urban ecology and evolution is when you’re working in the city, people end up getting these impromptu science lessons where they get to really see, hands on, how we’re doing science. It can be powerful watching someone in your city demonstrating that there’s still many questions, even on common animals, that we don’t have answers for yet.”
In future research, Carlen plans to continue to ask questions about urban evolution in different taxa to understanding whether or not certain patterns are universal. Ultimately, she hopes to work with city planners and policy makers to design cities that address the needs of both people and animals.
“I want to understand fundamental truths about ecology and evolution. Cities are great places to live. You get all these interactions with people that are honestly more sustainable than having us spread out across a bunch of land where we’re all driving cars. I really enjoy cities. And I want to make them great spaces for humans and animals,” Carlen said.
To learn more about Elizabeth Carlen’s research, visit http://www.elizabethcarlen.com/.
Living Earth Collaborative announces 2021 seed grant recipients
Photo: Joseph Steensma
The Living Earth Collaborative at Washington University in St. Louis announced the recipients of its fourth round of seed grant funding.
“This is a great set of projects,” said Jonathan Losos, the William H. Danforth Distinguished Professor of biology in Arts & Sciences and director of the Living Earth Collaborative. “We’re particularly thrilled at the institutional diversity of the recipients, spanning the breadth of Washington University and many local institutions beyond the Living Earth Collaborative’s three partner institutions.”
The 2021 seed grant investigators come from eight St. Louis area institutions, including researchers from six different departments or programs in five schools at Washington University. The projects and local recipients are:
- Biodiversity of freshwater mussels of the Upper Sangamon River (Illinois): Community science in action. Danelle Haake (National Great Rivers Research and Education Center); Sarah Douglass (Illinois Natural History Survey); Christy Edwards and Bob Coulter (Missouri Botanical Garden); Edward Spevak (Saint Louis Zoo); and Bruce Colravy (Upper Sangamon River Conservancy)
- Expanding the toolset for chelonian conservation: Understanding the diversity, distribution and dynamics of Terrapene microbiomes. Fangqiong Ling (Washington University, McKelvey School of Engineering); and Maris Brenn-White, Kathleen Apakupakul and Sharon L. Deem (Saint Louis Zoo)
- Forest Park Living Lab: Exploring the biodiversity and natural history of one of the world’s great parks. Joseph Steensma (Washington University, Brown School); David Webb (Washington University, Environmental Studies program in Arts & Sciences); Anthony Dell (National Great Rivers Research and Education Center); and Amy Witt (Forest Park Forever)
- Origin and diversification of the flowering plants of the Gulf of Guinea archipelago.Patricia Barberá and Tariq Stévart (Missouri Botanical Garden); Joan Garcia-Porta and Michael Landis (Washington University, Department of Biology in Arts & Sciences); and Nathan Muchhala (University of Missouri-St. Louis)
- Páramo biodiversity farms: A collaborative conservation project (Colombia). Iván Jiménez (Missouri Botanical Garden) and Derek Hoeferlin (Washington University, Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts)
- Socio-economic and cultural adaptation to biodiversity loss and climate change: Analysis and intervention efficacy study in three Madagascar subsistence communities. Armand Randrianasolo, Nivo H. Rakotoarivelo and Fortunat Rakotoarivony (Missouri Botanical Garden) and Judi McLean Park (Washington University, Olin Business School)
Learn more about the seed grant projects here.
(Photo courtesy of Danelle Haake)
The Living Earth Collaborative is a center for biodiversity built from a partnership among three leading institutions in the study of plant and animal science — Washington University, the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Saint Louis Zoo.
Its mission is to celebrate the diversity of living organisms and promote further understanding of the ways humans can help preserve the varied natural environments that allow plants, animals and microbes to survive and thrive. The center exists as a hub that facilitates interdisciplinary research among scholars across a wide range of fields.
In four years, the Living Earth Collaborative has funded 29 projects involving collaborators from 11 local institutions. Within Washington University, investigators hail from six schools: Arts & Sciences, the Brown School, the McKelvey School of Engineering, Olin Business School, the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts and the School of Medicine.
If I never knew you
Australian reptiles highlight urgent need for taxonomic research in the fight against biodiversity loss
New research published in PLOS Biology emphasizes the importance of prioritizing taxonomic research in conservation, with biodiversity loss greater than realized due to the high number of unknown and undocumented species.
Jane Melville, senior curator of terrestrial vertebrates at Museums Victoria and associate professor in the School of Biological Sciences at Monash University, led the collaborative research effort as part of a Fulbright Fellowship at Washington University in St. Louis.
The study establishes a new return-on-investment method of determining species that are a priority for closer scrutiny: undescribed species that are likely already threatened.
Implementing this method on 870 Australian snakes and lizards — a highly diverse group of vertebrates — Melville and her colleagues identified 282 reptiles needing taxonomic research. Of these, 17.6% comprise undescribed species of conservation concern, and 24 species are in need of immediate taxonomic attention, as they are likely already threatened or at risk of extinction.
“There are many species that we haven’t yet discovered, and until a species is known to science, we can’t evaluate its status, much less take action to preserve it. The question is: where do we devote our efforts?” said Jonathan Losos, director of the Living Earth Collaborative and the William H. Danforth Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Biology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University.
A seedy slice of history: Watermelons actually came from northeast Africa
Just in time for picnic-table trivia, a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences rewrites the origins of domesticated watermelons.
Using DNA from greenhouse-grown plants representing all species and hundreds of varieties of watermelon, scientists discovered that watermelons most likely came from wild crop progenitors in northeast Africa.
The study corrects a 90-year-old mistake that lumped watermelons into the same category as the South African citron melon. Instead, researchers, including a first author now at Washington University in St. Louis, found that a Sudanese form with non-bitter whitish pulp, known as the Kordofan melon (C. lanatus), is the closest relative of domesticated watermelons.
The genetic research is consistent with newly interpreted Egyptian tomb paintings that suggest the watermelon may have been consumed in the Nile Valley as a dessert more than 4,000 years ago.
“Based on DNA, we found that watermelons as we know them today — with sweet, often red pulp that can be eaten raw — were genetically closest to wild forms from west Africa and northeast Africa,” said Susanne S. Renner, honorary professor of biology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University.
Renner is an evolutionary biologist who recently joined Washington University after 17 years working as a professor at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany, where she also served as the director of the Munich Botanical Garden and Munich herbarium.
Her lab has long focused on honey melons and cucumbers, but for the past 10 years she has turned to watermelons and bitter gourds.
The genetic information published in the new study — completed with colleagues from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Ithaca, New York; the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London; and the University of Sheffield — could be useful for developing a more disease-resistant watermelon crop, Renner said.
“Today’s watermelon comes from a very small genetic stock and is highly susceptible to diseases and insect pests, including various mildews, other fungi, viruses and nematodes [worms],” Renner said. “So far, we found variation in three disease resistance genes between the Kordofan melon and the domesticated watermelon. Breeders might use these and other insights from the genome.”
But some of the greatest takeaways from this study, Renner said, are related to the mobility of people and their cultural connections.
“It was the Egyptian tomb paintings that convinced me that the Egyptians were eating cold watermelon pulp,” Renner said. “Otherwise, why place those huge fruits on flat trays next to grapes and other sweet fruits?”
“Melons, cucumbers and watermelons were domesticated several times” across human history, she said. “But to place these domestications in space and name is much more difficult than I thought 10 to 15 years ago. DNA from ancient seeds is already beginning to help.”
By Talia Ogliore May 24, 2021
Jenny Price, “Stop Saving the Planet!: An Environmentalist Manifesto”
Virtual Video premiere: Monday, June 21, 7:00 p.m. on Facebook.com/STLCoLibrary
We’ve been “saving the planet” for decades while accomplishing little to nothing–and low-income communities continue to suffer the worst consequences. St. Louis author and artist Jenny Price presents an environmentalism that is hugely more effective and a whole lot fairer. Concise, funny, and radical in the truest sense. “Stop Saving the Planet!” dissects our failures, posits solutions, and offers concrete actions we can take to mend our planet.
Books available from Novel Neighbor. Curbside pick-up and shipping available.
Brood X cicadas emerge in a rapidly changing world
“Brood X cicadas, like all periodical cicadas, are a Rip Van Winkle story,” said Brett Seymoure, the Grossman Family Postdoctoral Fellow with the Living Earth Collaborative at Washington University in St. Louis. “They live underground for 17 years, and then come up to a completely different world due to human-induced rapid environmental change, or HIREC.”
Rooted in St. Louis: The Elizabeth Danforth Butterfly Garden
There is a lot to look forward to this summer, and Washington University’s Butterfly Garden should be on that list. Come the imminent summer planting, the garden transformation will be almost unbelievable. A plethora of vibrant blooms will pop up, making the garden the perfect peaceful resting place for students on campus.
A tale of two forests could reveal path forward for saving endangered lemurs
By Talia Ogliore
Yes, spring flowers are blooming earlier.
It might confuse bees.
But change is even more challenging for plants that need help with pollination
By Talia Ogliore
Peter Raven autobiography just released!
|It’s safe to say that few people have lived lives as thoroughly devoted to plants as Peter H. Raven has. The longtime director—now president emeritus—of the Missouri Botanical Garden, author of numerous leading textbooks and several hundred scholarly articles, Raven has been a tireless champion of sustainability and biodiversity, earning him the plaudit of “Hero for the Planet” from Time.|
Driven by Nature is the first chronicle of this prominent scientist and conservationist’s life. Moving from his idyllic childhood in the San Francisco of the 1940s to his four decades leading the Missouri Botanical Garden, Raven’s autobiography take readers across multiple continents and decades. Driven by Nature follows the globetrotting botanist from China to the American Midwest as he works to foster concern for a changing planet, further the cause of biological education, and build the Missouri Botanical Garden into the world-renowned haven for plant life it is today. Raven brings his story into the twenty-first century with a timely epilogue that reinforces the crucial importance of scientific learning, active conservation, and committed activism in the face of a rapidly changing natural world.
Featuring an introduction by the Pulitzer Prize-winning naturalist E. O. Wilson, this beautifully illustrated book should thrill nature lovers, plant enthusiasts, and environmentally-conscious readers looking to take action to preserve our planet’s biodiversity.
Click here to place your order
As revenues slide amid pandemic, scientists warn of ‘orphaned’ plant and animal collections
By Bryce Gray Dec 6, 2020
Secrets of the ‘lost crops’ revealed where bison roam
What cold lizards in Miami can tell us about climate change resilience
Winners of ISME/IWA BioCluster Award 2020 announced …
CONGRATULATIONS … to LEC Biodiversity Fellow, Fangqiong Ling
Sicker livestock may increase climate woes
Viscous cycle: More parasites means higher emissions of potent greenhouse gas
Elderly ball python lays eggs ‘without male help’
With travel limits and labs closed,
MoBot researchers struggle to name,
catalog new species
By Max Kozlov St. Louis Post-DispatchSep 3, 2020
Once infected, twice infected
Prior exposure to powdery mildew makes plants more vulnerable to subsequent disease
By Marta Wegorzewska August 31, 2020
PBS News Hour program on Wildlife Trafficking includes our LEC Fellow, Odean Serrano
Lifestyle trumps geography in determining makeup of gut microbiome
Captive apes’ microbiomes more similar to some humans’ than to wild apes’
April 1, 2020
A bird’s-eye view of global health
By Christian Fogerty
As a science communications fellow at Tyson Research Center, Christian Fogerty embedded with the tick and wildlife ecology team to document their summer fieldwork. Here, he reflects on his experience and explains how it impacted his perspective on global health.
Postdoctoral Fellowships in Restoration
Ecology at the Missouri Botanical Garden
The Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development (CCSD) at the Missouri Botanical Garden seeks to hire two full-time postdoctoral scholars. The candidates will 1) develop and implement collaborative research project(s) that advance restoration science in woodlands, grasslands, and glades at MBG’s Shaw Nature Reserve and the broader region; 2) train and mentor undergraduate and graduate students; 3) assist MBG scientists with coordinating grant-funded activities including recruitment and mentoring of students, organizing and participating in outreach events and workshops, and presenting lectures to professional organizations and the general public; 4) prepare and submit manuscripts for publication; 5) build relationships with SNR staff and collaborative partners; and 6) actively participate in events with the St. Louis Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation community.
MBG’s Shaw Nature Reserve contains over 2,000 acres of fire-maintained woodlands, grasslands, and glades. Three decades of ecological restoration (i.e., selective tree thinning, removal of invasive species, prescribed fire, seeding of native species) has resulted in a chronosequence of restored natural areas at SNR. As part of this grant-funded project, new sites will be restored over the next three years. The successful candidates will be expected to develop new research projects related to their subject of interest, but focusing on past and/or future restorations at SNR. Research projects may also include other field sites and natural areas in the region. We anticipate hiring one postdoctoral fellow whose research focuses on the population genetics of restored populations (in collaboration with the lab of Dr. Christy Edwards) and another whose research focuses on any of the following (in collaboration with the lab of Dr. Matthew Albrecht Lab): plant community ecology, seed-based restoration, plant-soil interactions, and/or biological invasions. Floristic knowledge of Midwestern plant communities is desirable, but not required. The successful candidates will have opportunities to collaborate with MBG scientists active in conservation genetics, reintroduction biology, restoration ecology, global change biology, and community ecology.
Candidates with a completed Ph.D. or that will soon graduate with a Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Botany, Restoration Science, Environmental Science, Conservation Biology, or a related field are encouraged to apply. Ideal start time is before summer 2020, but this is negotiable. The term for this grant-funded position will be up to 3 years, with renewal each year contingent on satisfactory performance. Salary will be commensurate with experience, and this position includes a comprehensive benefits package.
The position will be based in St. Louis, where a vibrant community of ecologists, conservation practitioners, and evolutionary biologists that interact through partnerships among MBG, Washington University, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Saint Louis University, plus other area institutions. The position will be seated in the CCSD, which explores and implements new, science-based approaches to the conservation and sustainable use of plant diversity. CCSD’s strategies for conservation are based on a sound, scientific understanding of the occurrence and distribution of plants. CCSD applies the knowledge of plant diversity accumulated by Missouri Botanical Garden researchers over many years, making that knowledge usable for conservation planning and decision-making. Operating under the auspices of the Garden and as part of its division of Science and Conservation, CCSD builds upon the Garden’s institutional expertise, scientific programs, influence and resources.
For more information and to apply: https://usr57.dayforcehcm.com/CandidatePortal/en-US/MBG/Posting/View/471
Thursday, February 6 4:00-7:00PM
Join us for a free reception at the Saint Louis University Museum of Art to celebrate the opening of Too Hot to Sing.
Too Hot to Sing is the result of Kasey Fowler-Finn’s research of how global warming directly affects the abilities of insects to find suitable mates. Her study focused on the treehopper. For this exhibition she collaborated with sound artist Stephen Vitiello whose recordings show how vibrational signals sound at different temperatures, and with Impact Media Lab, a creative agency for scientists.
Fowler Finn’s study shows how climate change can impact mating success and, ultimately, survival of species that communicate through vibrations. It is important to note that more than 90% of insects use vibrations to communicate within and between species.
Vitiello and Fowler-Finn used a specialized laser recording device to record the sounds of insects as they moved on the stems and leaves of plants. Vitiello then manipulated the sound recordings to make them audible to humans.
This exhibition, a collaboration between a scientist and an artist brings climate change into sharp focus as one of the existential challenges humanity faces.
Saint Louis University Museum of Art
3663 Lindell Boulevard
St. Louis, MO 63108
Parking will be available at the lot located at the intersection of Lindell and Spring Avenue.
The museum is free and open to the public.
11 a.m. – 4 p.m., Wednesday-Sunday
Researchers say goodbye to Georgette — A Very Tough Turtle
St. Louis Wildlife Project captures the day-to-day of region’s wild animals
Bat poop may give Missouri researchers clues about historical changes to climate, vegetation
A cluster of hibernating gray bats (Myotis grisescens) (Ann Froschauer/USFWA/via Flickr)
Four ways to curb light pollution, save bugs
Insects have experienced global declines. Flipping the switch can help.
Artificial light at night negatively impacts thousands of species: beetles, moths, wasps and other insects that have evolved to use light levels as cues for courtship, foraging and navigation.
Writing in the scientific journal Biological Conservation, Brett Seymoure, the Grossman Family Postdoctoral Fellow of the Living Earth Collaborative at Washington University in St. Louis, and his collaborators reviewed 229 studies to document the myriad ways that light alters the living environment such that insects are unable to carry out crucial biological functions.
“Artificial light at night is human-caused lighting — ranging from streetlights to gas flares from oil extraction,” Seymoure said. “It can affect insects in pretty much every imaginable part of their lives.”
The air you breathe, the water you drink and the food you eat all rely on biodiversity, but right now it is in crisis – because of us. What does this mean for our future and can we stop it?
by Damian Carrington Environment editor, The briefing
New research from Washington University in St. Louis shows that invasive mosquitos at the northern limit of their current range are successfully using time-capsule-like eggs to survive conditions that are colder than those in its native territory. (Photo: Shutterstock)
The ptarmigan is a small-brained bird that thrives in colder, high latitude regions. A global study in the journal Nature Communications compares more than 2,000 birds and finds that, in highly variable environments, birds tend to have either larger or smaller brains relative to their body size. (Image: Shutterstock)