Sensory innovation and ecological diversification

Why is it important?

Some groups of animals have been spectacularly successful at moving among major habitats during their evolution, while other groups have diversified only within single habitats. What causes these differences in transition rates among clades?  We are using phylogenetic comparative methods to test how sensory systems have integrated with each other, and with trophic and skeletal innovation, to facilitate ecological diversification in snakes. These tests are important for understanding the processes underlying evolutionary convergence, as well as for revealing how and why integrated phenotypes evolve and function in a way that is more than simply the sum of their parts.

Groups of organisms show profound variation in their ability to successfully invade habitats that involve new physical challenges, such as evolutionary transitions from land to water. But before an organism can obtain food, escape predators, and find mates in a new habitat, body systems with very different functions must coordinate to successfully sense and respond to a novel physical medium. While the evolution of “hard parts” for feeding and locomotion are well-understood, the ways that “soft parts” like sensory systems change across deep time to facilitate habitat invasions remains poorly known. How important is the evolutionary integration of stimulus-sensing organs, the brain regions that process their data, and the nerves that connect them for predicting these shifts?

By using new 3D technology to nondestructively visualize the bones and sensory systems of preserved specimens in natural history collections, we are creating a unified framework for understanding the relative importance of different anatomical traits that facilitate shifts to new habitats. Our project then uses a student-centered ambassador model (“Project: MORPH!”) to leverage research products into 3D biodiversity education resources and experiences for the public and students at all levels.  Additionally, this work provides advanced training in “big data” analysis and science communication to prepare early-career scientists from diverse backgrounds for future research in biodiversity science. Together, this project provides powerful insight into the drivers of successful invasion of major habitats across an iconic group of vertebrates and leverages emerging technologies towards comprehensive integration of biodiversity research and teaching in the 21st century.