Evolutionary dynamics of mimicry
Why is it important?
We use systems with striking polymorphism in morphology to answer questions about trait evolution. These questions are best addressed within a comparative phylogenetic framework, so much of this work also results in contributions to systematics, biodiversity, and biogeography. These questions are important because they inform how and why traits change over time by providing a better understanding of the tempo, direction, and drivers of phenotypic evolution.
Interactions between predator and prey are fundamental drivers of ecological and evolutionary dynamics in nature. One evolutionary solution to the challenge of avoiding predation is defensive mimicry, in which multiple unrelated species converge on the same conspicusous phenotype to honestly or deceitfully communicate toxicity information to predators. However, the interaction between external mimicry and internal toxicity traits is poorly known: are toxic lineages more - or less - likely to evolve mimicry, and can toxicity change after a species joins a mimicry system? Currently, our lab is characterizing phenotypic variation across Neotropical snake species to test how the evolution of mimicry traits integrates with toxicity traits to drive differential dynamics of predator defense systems in nature. In collaboration with Christian Cox at Florida International University, we also test some of these questions about color polymorphism and phenotypic diversity within Batesian mimicry systems. Our main study system is the colubrid snake genus Sonora in the US and Mexico, of which all members have varying levels of color polymorphism and mimicry of venomous coral snakes.
I have also investigated the evolutionary "rock-paper-scissors" dynamics of alternative mating strategies and throat/belly color polymorphism in lizards.