I am a graduate student under Matt Helmus and member of the Integrative Ecology Lab in the Biology Department at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Ecologists have long been interested in mechanisms that increase and decrease biodiversity on Earth and the effects that they have on organisms' interactions and functions. These efforts are increasingly important in the current global Anthropocene Extinction Event, which is accelerating biodiversity loss beyond its typical balance with accumulation. I count myself among those working to better understand and conserve biodiversity by leveraging contemporary tools and methods.
The reason why I study amphibians and reptiles
As far back as I can remember, I have always felt a strong interest in reptiles and amphibians. These organisms are great examples of the diversity and adaptability that can be found in nature. As a result, they are incredible focal taxa for studying how organisms interact and respond to their environments.
In this day and age, the need to be "eco-aware" is global. Often, an environment will shift in response to rapid change, and the way species react can indicate what is to come. Much like canaries in coal mines, amphibians and reptiles have become prime examples of such species, which makes them great model organisms. By understanding patterns in herpetofauna, we can make sense of broader ecological phenomena that can be applied to other systems as well.
Balancing biodiversity in a constantly changing world
A key question in ecology is: "What factors shape the presence and abundance of species?" I apply this question within a community context to measure and ask how groups of species that interact regularly are able to coexist despite numerous ecological similarities. Currently, I am looking at how some species of burrowing skinks in the genus Brachymeles are able to coexist in numerous communities throughout the Philippines, despite a high degree of perceived ecological overlap. One of the key observations among these assemblages is that without exception, no two species have the same gross morphology within a single community. Further, the same basic phenotypic categories manifest in different communities across the archipelago, which begs the question: what is driving the composition of these communities in a repeated fashion?
Functional Diversity of Ecological Communities
Ecological communities contain species that are adapted to their environment differently. Adaptive differences reduce the likelihood that similar species compete and displace one another, often increasing species richness in a given habitat. Such differences can be related to phenotypic traits readily via Simpsonian adaptive landscapes, and models have been developed recently to detect the number and membership of adaptive peaks on macroevolutionary timescales. Changes in Simpsonian adaptive landscapes through time provide a unique view into the relationship between species richness and the range of roles held by species in a community (functional diversity). I am investigating if patterns of convergent adaptive optima characterize assemblages of lizards in the genus Leiocephalus throughout the Caribbean islands. Furthermore, I plan to ask whether introduced species have displaced extinct Leiocephalus and influenced adaptive peak shifts in extant lineages. In future research, I will expand these questions to encompass Caribbean herpetofanual communities at large.
Quantification of Biodiversity Across Spatial Scales
Historically, an “ecological community” denotes two or more species populations that occur together. Despite widespread use, community definitions have changed to reflect prevailing ideas of biodiversity organization. The current belief is that an ecological community is a set of interacting species populations that occur together in space. Although there is much agreement conceptually, community spatial boundaries have been determined by disparate means: hypothesized species range overlap, restriction to identical geographical boundaries, researcher-specified plots, and survey record consensus for an area. Such differences may jeopardize transferability between systems and generalization of assembly patterns. Inconsistent boundary definitions may suggest that discrete “ecological communities” characterize biodiversity across regional and local scales inappropriately. I am pursuing alternative methods for quantifying ecological communities empirically that assess the elasticity of assemblage membership through objective spatial scales and can account for defined regional boundaries.