How did pygmy perch swim across the desert?

“Pygmy perch swam across the desert”

As regular readers of The G-CAT are likely aware, my first ever scientific paper was published this week. The paper is largely the results of my Honours research (with some extra analysis tacked on) on the phylogenomics (the same as phylogenetics, but with genomic data) and biogeographic history of a group of small, endemic freshwater fishes known as the pygmy perch. There are a number of different messages in the paper related to biogeography, taxonomy and conservation, and I am really quite proud of the work.

Southern_pygmy_perch 1 MHammer
A male southern pygmy perch, which usually measures 6-8 cm long.

To my honest surprise, the paper has received a decent amount of media attention following its release. Nearly all of these have focused on the biogeographic results and interpretations of the paper, which is arguably the largest component of the paper. In these media releases, the articles are often opened with “…despite the odds, new research has shown how a tiny fish managed to find its way across the arid Australian continent – more than once.” So how did they manage it? These are tiny fish, and there’s a very large desert area right in the middle of Australia, so how did they make it all the way across? And more than once?!

 The Great (southern) Southern Land

To understand the results, we first have to take a look at the context for the research question. There are seven officially named species of pygmy perches (‘named’ is an important characteristic here…but we’ll go into the details of that in another post), which are found in the temperate parts of Australia. Of these, three are found with southwest Western Australia, in Australia’s only globally recognised biodiversity hotspot, and the remaining four are found throughout eastern Australia (ranging from eastern South Australia to Tasmania and up to lower Queensland). These two regions are separated by arid desert regions, including the large expanse of the Nullarbor Plain.

Pygmyperch_distributionmap
The distributions of pygmy perch species across Australia. The dots and labels refer to different sampling sites used in the study. A: the distribution of western pygmy perches, and essentially the extent of the southwest WA biodiversity hotspot region. B: the distribution of eastern pygmy perches, excluding N. oxleyana which occurs in upper NSW/lower QLD (indicated in C). C: the distributions relative to the map of Australia. The black region in the middle indicates the Nullarbor Plain. 

 

The Nullarbor Plain is a remarkable place. It’s dead flat, has no trees, and most importantly for pygmy perches, it also has no standing water or rivers. The plain was formed from a large limestone block that was pushed up from beneath the Earth approximately 15 million years ago; with the progressive aridification of the continent, this region rapidly lost any standing water drainages that would have connected the east to the west. The remains of water systems from before (dubbed ‘paleodrainages’) can be seen below the surface.

Nullarbor Plain photo
See? Nothing here. Photo taken near Watson, South Australia. Credit: Benjamin Rimmer.

Biogeography of southern Australia

As one might expect, the formation of the Nullarbor Plain was a huge barrier for many species, especially those that depend on regular accessible water for survival. In many species of both plants and animals, we see in their phylogenetic history a clear separation of eastern and western groups around this time; once widely distributed species become fragmented by the plain and diverged from one another. We would most certainly expect this to be true of pygmy perch.

But our questions focus on what happened before the Nullarbor Plain arrived in the picture. More than 15 million years ago, southern Australia was a massively different place. The climate was much colder and wetter, even in central Australia, and we even have records of tropical rainforest habitats spreading all the way down to Victoria. Water-dependent animals would have been able to cross the southern part of the continent relatively freely.

Biogeography of the enigmatic pygmy perches

This is where the real difference between everything else and pygmy perch happens. For most species, we see only one east and west split in their phylogenetic tree, associated with the Nullarbor Plain; before that, their ancestors were likely distributed across the entire southern continent and were one continuous unit.

Not for pygmy perch, though. Our phylogenetic patterns show that there were multiple splits between eastern and western ancestral pygmy perch. We can see this visually within the phylogenetic tree; some western species of pygmy perches are more closely related, from an evolutionary perspective, to eastern species of pygmy perches than they are to other western species. This could imply a couple different things; either some species came about by migration from east to west (or vice versa), and that this happened at least twice, or that two different ancestral pygmy perches were distributed across all of southern Australia and each split east-west at some point in time. These two hypotheses are called “multiple invasion” and “geographic paralogy”, respectively.

MCC_geographylabelled
The phylogeny of pygmy perches produced by this study, containing 45 different individuals across all species of pygmy perch. Species are labelled in the tree in brackets, and their geographic location (east or west) is denoted by the colour on the right. This tree clearly shows more than one E/W separation, as not all eastern species are within the same clade. For example, despite being an eastern species, N. variegata is more closely related to Nth. balstoni or N. vittata than to the other eastern species (N. australisN. obscuraN. oxleyana and N. ‘flindersi’.

So, which is it? We delved deeper into this using a type of analysis called ‘ancestral clade reconstruction’. This tries to guess the likely distributions of species ancestors using different models and statistical analysis. Our results found that the earliest east-west split was due to the fragmentation of a widespread ancestor ~20 million years ago, and a migration event facilitated by changing waterways from the Nullarbor Plain pushing some eastern pygmy perches to the west to form the second group of western species. We argue for more than one migration across Australia since the initial ancestor of pygmy perches must have expanded from some point (either east or west) to encompass the entirety of southern Australia.

BGB_figure
The ancestral area reconstruction of pygmy perches, estimated using the R package BioGeoBEARS. The different pie charts denote the relative probability of the possible distributions for the species or ancestor at that particular time; colours denote exactly where the distribution is (following the legend). As you can see, the oldest E/W split at 21 million years ago likely resulted from a single widespread ancestor, with it’s range split into an east and west group. The second E/W event, at 15 million years ago, most likely reflects a migration from east to west, resulting in the formation of the N. vittata species group. This coincides with the Nullarbor Plain, so it’s likely that changes in waterway patterns allowed some eastern pygmy perch to move westward as the area became more arid.

So why do we see this for pygmy perch and no other species? Well, that’s the real mystery; out of all of the aquatic species found in southeast and southwest Australia, pygmy perch are one of the worst at migrating. They’re very picky about habitat, small, and don’t often migrate far unless pushed (by, say, a flood). It is possible that unrecorded extinct species of pygmy perch might help to clarify this a little, but the chances of finding a preserved fish fossil (let alone for a fish less than 8cm in size!) is extremely unlikely. We can really only theorise about how they managed to migrate.

Pygmy perch biogeo history
A diagram of the distribution of pygmy perch species over time, as suggested by the ancestral area reconstruction. A: the initial ancestor of pygmy perches was likely found throughout southern Australia. B: an unknown event splits the ancestor into an eastern and western group; the sole extant species of the W group is Nth. balstoniC: the ancestor of the eastern pygmy perches spreads towards the west, entering part of the pre-Nullarbor region. D: due to changes in the hydrology of the area, some eastern pygmy perches (the maroon colour in C) are pushed towards the west; these form N. vittata species and N. pygmaea. The Nullarbor Plain forms and effectively cuts off the two groups from one another, isolating them.

What does this mean for pygmy perches?

Nearly all species of pygmy perch are threatened or worse in the conservation legislation; there have been many conservation efforts to try and save the worst-off species from extinction. Pygmy perches provide a unique insight to the history of the Australian climate and may be a key in unlocking some of the mysteries of what our land was like so long ago. Every species is important for conservation and even those small, hard-to-notice creatures that we might forget about play a role in our environmental history.

Emotional science: passion, spirituality and curiosity

“Science is devoid of emotion”

Emotion and spirituality are concepts that inherently seem at odds with the fundamentally stoic, empirical nature of scientific research. Science is based on a rigorous system of objectivity, repeatability and empiricism that, at face value, appears to completely disregard subjective aspects such as emotion, spirituality or religion. But in the same way that this drives the division of art from science, removing these subjective components of science can take away some of the personal significance and driving factors of scientific discipline.

Emotions as a driving force in science

For many scientists, emotional responses to inquiry, curiosity and connection are important components of their initial drive to study science in the first place. The natural curiosity of humanity, the absolute desire to know and understand the world around us, is fundamental to scientific advancement (and is a likely source of science as a concept in the first place). We care deeply about understanding many aspects of the natural world, and for many there is a strong emotional connection to our study fields. Scientists are fundamentally drawn to this career path based on some kind of emotional desire to better understand it.

Although it’s likely a massive cliché, Contact is one of my favourite science-fiction movies for simultaneously tackling faith, emotion, rationality, and scientific progress. And no doubt any literary student could dissect these various themes over and over and discuss exactly how the movie balances the opposing concepts of faith in the divine and scientific inquiry (and the overlap of the two). But for me, the most heartfelt aspect the movie is the portrayal of Ellie Arroway: a person who is insatiably driven to science, to the point of sacrificing many things in her life (including faith). But she’s innately an emotional person; when her perspectives are challenged by her observations, it’s a profound moment for her as a person. Ellie, to me, represents scientists pretty well: passionate, driven, idealistic but rational and objective as best as she can be. These traits make her very admirable (and a great protagonist, as far as I’m concerned).

Ellie Arroway photo
Also, Jodie Foster is an amazing actress.

I would not, under ordinary circumstances, consider myself to be particularly sentimental or spiritual. I don’t believe in many spiritual concepts (including theism, the afterlife, or concepts of a ‘soul’), and try to handle life as rationally and objectively as I can (sometimes not very successful given my mental health). But I can’t even remotely deny that there is a strong emotional or spiritual attachment to my field of science. Without delving too much into my own personal narrative (at the risk of being a little self-absorbed and pretentious; it’s also been covered a little in another post), the emotional connection I share with the life of Earth is definitely something that drove me to study biology and evolution. The sense of wonder and curiosity at observing the myriad of creatures and natural selection can concoct. The shared feeling of being alive in all of its aspects. The mystery of the world being seen through eyes very different to ours.

Headcase headspace artwork
More shameless self-promotion of my own artwork. You’ll notice that most of my art includes some science-based aspects (usually related to biology/evolution/genetics), largely because that’s what inspires me. Feeling passionate and emotional about science drives both my artistic and scientific sides.

Attachment to the natural world

I’d guess that there are many people who say they feel a connection to nature and animals in some form or another. I definitely think this is the case for many biologists of various disciplines: an emotional connection to the natural world is a strong catalyst for curiosity and it’s no surprise that this could develop later in life to a scientific career. For some scientists, an emotional attachment to a particular taxonomic group is a defining driving force in their choice of academic career; science provides a platform to understand, conserve and protect the species we hold most dear.

Me with cockatoo
A photo of me with Adelaide Zoo’s resident Red-tailed Black Cockatoo, Banks (his position was unsolicited, for reference). Giving people the opportunity to have an emotional connection (as silly as that might be) with nature can improve conservation efforts and environmental protection, boost eco-based tourism, and potentially even make people happier

 

An appeal to reason and emotion 

Although it’s of course always better to frame an argument or present research in an objective, rational matter, people have a tendency to respond well to appeal to emotion. In this sense, presenting scientific research as something that can be evocative, powerful and emotional is, in my belief, a good tactic to get the general public invested in science. Getting people to care about our research, our study species, and our findings is a difficult task but one that is absolutely necessary for the longevity and development of science at both the national and global level.

Pretending the science is emotionless and apathetic is counterproductive to the very things that drove us to do the science in the first place. Although we should attempt to be aware of, and distance, our emotions from the objective, data-based analysis of our research, admitting and demonstrating our passions (and why we feel so passionate) is critical in distilling science into the general population. Science should be done rationally and objectively but driven by emotional characteristics such as wonder, curiosity and fascination.

The direction of evolution: divergence vs. convergence

Direction of evolution

We’ve talked previously on The G-CAT about how the genetic underpinning of certain evolutionary traits can change in different directions depending on the selective pressure it is under. Particularly, we can see how the frequency of different alleles might change in one direction or another, or stabilise somewhere in the middle, depending on its encoded trait. But thinking bigger picture than just the genetics of one trait, we can actually see that evolution as an entire process works rather similarly.

Divergent evolution

The classic view of the direction of evolution is based on divergent evolution. This is simply the idea that a particular species possess some ancestral trait. The species (or population) then splits into two (for one reason or another), and each one of these resultant species and populations evolves in a different way to the other. Over time, this means that their traits are changing in different directions, but ultimately originate from the same ancestral source.

Evidence for divergent evolution is rife throughout nature, and is a fundamental component of all of our understanding of evolution. Divergent evolution means that, by comparing similar traits in two species (called homologous traits), we can trace back species histories to common ancestors. Some impressive examples of this exist in nature, such as the number of bones in most mammalian species. Humans have the same number of neck bones as giraffes; thus, we can suggest that the ancestor of both species (and all mammals) probably had a similar number of neck bones. It’s just that the giraffe lineage evolved longer bones whereas other lineages did not.

Homology figure
A diagrammatic example of homologous structures in ‘hand’ bones. The coloured bones demonstrate how the same original bone structures have diverged into different forms. Source: BiologyWise.

Convergent evolution

But of course, evolution never works as simply as you want it to, and sometimes we can get the direct opposite pattern. This is called convergent evolution, and occurs when two completely different species independently evolve very similar (sometimes practically identical) traits. This is often caused by a limitation of the environment; some extreme demand of the environment requires a particular physiological solution, and thus all species must develop that trait in order to survive. An example of this would be the physiology of carnivorous marsupials like Tasmanian devils or thylacines: despite being in another Class, their body shapes closely resemble something more canid. Likely, the carnivorous diet places some constraints on physiology, particularly jaw structure and strength.

Convergent evol intelligence
A surprising example of convergent evolution is cognitive ability in apes and some bird groups (e.g. corvids). There’s plenty of other animal groups more related to each of these that don’t demonstrate the same level of cognitive reasoning (based on the traits listed in the centre): thus, we can conclude that cognition has evolved twice in very, very different lineages. Source: Emery & Clayton, 2004.

A more dramatic (and potentially obvious) example of convergent evolution would be wings and the power of flight. Despite the fact that butterflies, bees, birds and bats all have wings and can fly, most of them are pretty unrelated to one another. It seems much more likely that flight evolved independently multiple times, rather than the other 99% of species that shared the same ancestor lost the capacity of flight.

Parallel evolution

Sometimes convergent evolution can work between two species that are pretty closely related, but still evolved independently of one another. This is distinguished from other categories of evolution as parallel evolution: the main difference is that while both species may have shared the same start and end point, evolution has acted on each one independent of the other. This can make it very difficult to diagnose from convergent evolution, and is usually determined by the exact history of the trait in question.

Parallel evolution is an interesting field of research for a few reasons. Firstly, it provides a scenario in which we can more rigorously test expectations and outcomes of evolution in a particular environment. For example, if we find traits that are parallel in a whole bunch of fish species in a particular region, we can start to look at how that particular environment drives evolution across all fish species, as opposed to one species case studies.

Marsupial handedness.jpg
Here’s another weird example; different populations of marsupials (particularly kangaroos and wallabies) show preferential handedness depending on where the population is. That is, different populations of different species of marsupials shows parallel evolution of handedness, since they’re related to one another but have evolved it independently of the other species. Source: Giljov et al. (2015).

Following from that logic, it is then important to question the mechanisms of parallelism. From a genetic point of view, do these various species use the same genes (and genetic variants) to produce the same identical trait? Or are there many solutions to the selective question in nature? While these questions are rather complicated, and there has been plenty of evidence both for and against parallel genetic underpinning of parallel traits, it seems surprisingly often that many different genetic combinations can be used to get the same result. This gives interesting insight into how complex genetic coding of traits can be, and how creative and diverse evolution can be in the real world.

Where is evolution going?

Cat phylogeny
An example of all three types of evolutionary trajectory in a single phylogeny of cats (you know how we do it here at The G-CAT). This phylogeny consists of two distinct genera; one with one species (P. aliquam) and another of three species (the red box indicates their distance). Our species have three main physical traits: coat colour, ear tufts and tail shape. At the ancestral nodes of the tree, we can see what the ancestor of these species looked like for these three traits. Each of these traits has undergone a different type of evolution. The tufts on the ears are the result of divergent evolution, since F. tuftus evolved the trait differently to its nearest relative, F. griseo. Contrastingly, the orange coat colour of F. tuftus and P. aliquam are the result of convergent evolution: neither of these species are very closely related (remembering the red box) and evolved orange coats independently of one another (since their ancestors are grey). And finally, the fluffy tails of F. hispida and F. griseo can be considered parallel evolution, since they’re similar evolutionarily (same genus) but still each evolved tail fluff independently (not in the ancestor). This example is a little convoluted, but if you trace the history of each trait in the phylogeny you can more easily see these different patterns.

So, where is evolution going for nature? Well, the answer is probably all over the place, but steered by the current environmental circumstances. Predicting the evolutionary impacts of particular environmental change (e.g. climate change) is exceedingly difficult but a critical component of understanding the process of evolution and the future of species. Evolution continually surprises us with creative solution to complex problems and I have no doubt new mysteries will continue to be thrown at us as we delve deeper.

All the world in the palm of your hand: whole genome sequencing for evolution and conservation

Building an entire genome

If bigger is better, then biggest is best. Having the genome of a particular study species fully sequenced allows us to potentially look at all of the genetic variation in the entire gene pool: but how do we sequence the entirety of the genome? And what are the benefits of having a whole genome to refer to?

Whole genome assembly
A very, very simplified overview of whole genome sequencing. Similar to other genomic technologies, we start by fragmenting the genome into much smaller, easier to sequence parts (reads). We then use a computer algorithm which pieces these reads together into a consecutive sequence based on overlapping DNA sequence (like building a chain out of Lego blocks). From this assembled genome, we can then attach annotations using information from other species’ genomes or genetic studies, which can correlate a particular sequence to a gene, a function of that gene, and the resultant protein from these gene (although not always are all of these aspects included).

Well, assembling the whole genome of an organism for the first time is a very tricky process. It involves taking DNA sequence from only a few individuals, breaking them down into smaller fragments and multiplying these fragments into the billions (moreorless the same process used in other genomics technologies: the real difference is that we need the full breadth of the genome so that we don’t miss any spaces). From these fragments, we use a complex computer algorithm which builds up a consensus sequence like a Lego tower; by finding parts of sequences which overlap, the software figures out which pieces connect to one another. Hopefully, we eventually end up with one very long continuous sequence; the genome! Sometimes, we might end with a few very large blocks (called contigs), but this is also useful for analyses (correlated with how many/big blocks there are). With this full genome, we use information from other more completed genomes (such as those from model species like humans, mice or even worms) to figure out which sections of the genome relate to specific genes. We can then annotate these sections by labelling them as clear genes, complete with start and end point, and attach a particular physical function of that gene.

The benefits of whole genomes

Having an entire genome as a reference is an extremely helpful tool in conservation and evolutionary studies. The first, and perhaps most obvious benefit, is the sheer scale of the data we can use. By having the entirety of the genome available, we can use potentially billions of base pairs of sequence in our genetic analyses (for reference, the human genome is >3 billion base pairs long). Even if we don’t sequence the full genome for all of our samples, having a reference genome as basis for assembly our reduced datasets significantly improves the quantity and quality of sequences we can use.

Another very important benefit is the ability to prescribe function in our studies. Many of our processes for obtaining data, even for genomic technologies, use random and anonymous fragments of the genome. Although this is a cost-effective way to obtain a very large amount of data, it unfortunately means that we often have no idea which part of the genome our sequences came from. This means that we don’t know which sequences relate to specific genes, and even if we did we would have no idea what those genes are or do! But with an annotated genome, we can take even our fragmented sequence and check it against the genome and find out what genes are present.

Understanding adaptation

Based on that, it seems pretty obvious about exactly how having an annotated genome can help us in studies of adaptation. Knowing the functional aspect of our genetic data allows us to more directly determine how evolution is happening in nature; instead of only being able to say that two species are evolving differently from one another, for example, we can explicitly look at how they are evolving. Is one evolving tolerance to hotter temperatures? Are they evolving different genes to handle different diets? Are they evolving in response to an external influence, like a viral outbreak or changing climate? What are the physiological consequences of these changes? These questions are critical in understanding past and future evolution, and full genome analysis allows us to delve into them much deeper.

Manhattan plot example
A (slightly edited) figure of full genome comparisons between domestic dogs and wild wolves by Axelsson et al. (2013), with the aim of understanding the evolutionary changes associated with domestication. For avid readers, this figure probably looks familiar. This figure compares the genetic differentiation across the entire genome between dogs and wolves, with some sections of the genome (circled) showing clear differences. As there is an annotated dog genome, the authors then delved into these genes to understand the functional differences between the two. By comparing their genetic differences to functional genes, the authors can more explicitly suggest mechanisms or changes associated with the domestication process (such as adaptation to a starch-heavy and human-influenced diet).

 

 

This includes allowing us to better understand how adaptation actually works in nature. As we’ve discussed before, more traditional studies often assumed that single, or very few, genes were responsible for allowing a species to adapt and change, and that these genes had very strong effects on their physiology. But what we see far more often is polygenic adaptation; small changes in a very large number of genes which, combined together, allow the species to adapt and evolve. By having the entirety of the genome available, we are much more likely to capture all of the genes that are under natural selection in a particular population or species, painting a clearer picture of their evolutionary trajectory.

Understanding demography

The much larger dataset of full genomes is also important for understanding the non-adaptive parts of evolution; the demographic history. Given that selectively neutral impacts (e.g. reductions in population size) are likely to impact all of the genes in the gene pool somewhat equally, having a full genome allows us to more accurately infer the demographic state and historical patterns of species.

For both adaptive and non-adaptive variation, it is also important to consider what we call linkage disequilibrium. Genetic sequences that are physically close to each other in the genome will often be inherited together due to the imprecision of recombination (a fairly technical process, so I won’t delve into this): what this can mean is that if a gene is under very strong selection, then sequences around this gene will also look like they’re under selection too. This can give falsely positive adaptive genes (i.e. sequences that look like genes under selection but are just linked to a gene that is) or can interfere with demographic analyses (since they often assume no selection, or linkage to selection, on the sequences used). With a whole genome, we can actually estimate how far away a base pair has to be before it’s not linked anymore; we call these linkage blocks, and they’re very useful additions to analyses.

Linkage_example
An example of linkage as a process. We start with a particular sequence (top); during recombination, this sequence may randomly break and rearrange into different parts. In this example, I’ve simulated four different ‘breaks’ (dashed coloured lines) due to recombination. Each of these breaks leads to two separate blocks of fragments; for example, the break at the blue line results in the second two sequence blocks (middle). If we focus on one target base pair in the sequence (golden A), then we can see in some fragments it remains with certain bases, but sometimes it gets separated by the break. If we compare how often the golden A is in the same block (i.e. is co-inherited) as each of the other bases, across all 4 breaks, then we see that the bases that are closest to it (the golden A is represented by the golden bar) are almost always in the same block. This makes sense: the further away a base is from our target, the more likely that there will be a break between it. This is shown in the frequency distributions at the bottom: the left figure shows the actual frequencies of co-inheritance (i.e. linkage) using the top example and those 4 breaks. The right figure shows a more realistic depiction of how linkage looks in the genome; it rapidly decays as we move away from the target (although the width and rate of this can vary).

Improving conservation management

In a similar fashion to demography, full genome datasets can improve our estimates of relatedness and pedigrees in captive breeding programs. The massive scale of whole genomes allows us to more easily trace the genealogical history of individuals, allowing us to assign parents more accurately. This also helps with our estimations of genetic relatedness, arguably the most critical aspect of genetic-based breeding programs. This is particularly helpful for species with tricky mating patterns, such as polyamory, brood spawning or difficult to track organisms.

Pedigrees
An example of how whole genomes can improve our estimation of pedigrees. Say we have a random individual (star), and we want to know how they fit into a particular family tree (pedigree). With only a few genes, we might struggle to pick where in the family it fits based on limited genetic information. With a larger genetic dataset (such as reduced-representation genomics), we might be able to cross off a few potential candidate spots but still have some trouble with a few places (due to unknown parents, polygamy or issues with genetic analysis). With whole genomes, we should be able to much better clarify the whole pedigree and find exactly where our star individual fits in the tree (red circle). It is thanks to whole genomes, we can do those ancestry analyses that have gone viral lately!

The way forwards

While many non-model species are still lacking in the available genomic information, whole genomes are progressively being sequenced for more and more species. As this astronomical dataset grows, our ability to investigate, discover and test theories about evolution, natural selection and conservation will also improve. Many projects already exist which aim specifically to increase the number of whole genomes available for certain taxonomic groups such as birds and bats: these will no doubt prove to be invaluable resources for future studies.

Not that kind of native-ity: endemism and invasion of Australia

The endemics of Australia

Australia is world-renowned for the abundant and bizarre species that inhabit this wonderful island continent. We have one of the highest numbers of unique species in the entire world (in the top few!): this is measured by what we call ‘endemism’. A species is considered endemic to a particular place or region if that it is the only place it occurs: it’s completely unique to that environment. In Australia, a whopping 87% of our mammals, 45% of our birds, 93% of our reptiles, 94% of our amphibians 24% of our fishes and 86% of our plants are endemic, making us a real biodiversity paradise! Some lists even label us as a ‘megadiverse country’, which sounds pretty awesome on paper. And although we traditionally haven’t been very good at looking after it, our array of species is a matter of some pride to Aussies.

Endemism map
A map representing the relative proportion of endemic species in Australia, generated through the Atlas of Living Australia. The colours range from no (white; 0% endemics) or little (blue) to high levels of endemism (red; 100% of species are endemic). As you can see, some biogeographic hotspots are clearly indicated (southwest WA, the east coast, the Kimberley ranges).

But the real question is: why are there so many endemics in Australia? What is so special about our country that lends to our unique flora and fauna? Although we naturally associate tropical regions with lush, vibrant and diverse life, most of Australia is complete desert. That said, most of our species are concentrated in the tropical regions of the country, particularly in the upper east coast and far north (the ‘Top End’).

There are a number of different factors which contribute to the high species diversity of Australia. Most notably is how isolated we are as a continent: Australia has been separated from most of the rest of the world for millions of years. In this time, the climate has varied dramatically as the island shifted northward, creating a variety of changing environments and unique ecological niches for species to specialise into. We refer to these species groups as ‘Gondwana relicts’, since their last ancestor with the rest of the world would have been distributed across the supercontinent Gondwana over 100 million years ago. These include marsupials, many birds groups (including ratites and megapodes), many fish groups and a plethora of others. A Gondwanan origin explains why they are only found within Australia, southern Africa and South America (the closest landmass that was also historically connected to Gondwana).

Early arrivals and naturalisation to the Australian ecosystem 

But not all of Australia’s species are so ancient and ingrained in the landscape. As Australia drifted northward and eventually collided with the Sunda plate (forming the mountain ranges across southeast Asia), many new species and groups managed to disperse into Australia. This includes the first indigenous people to colonise Australia, widely regarded as one of the oldest human civilisations and estimated to have arrived down under over 65 thousand years ago.

Eventually, this connection also brought with them one of our most iconic species; the dingo. Estimates of their arrival dates the migration at around 6 thousand years ago. As Australia’s only ‘native’ dog, there has been much debate about its status as an Australian icon. To call the dingo ‘native’ implies it’s always been there: but 6 thousand years is more than enough time to become ingrained within the ecosystem in a stable fashion. So, to balance the debate (and prevent the dingo from being labelled as an ‘invasive pest’ unfairly), we often refer to them as ‘naturalised’. This term helps us to disentangle modern-day pests, many of which our immensely destructive to the natural environment, from other species that have naturally migrated and integrated many years ago.

Patriotic dingo
Although it may not be a “true native”, the dingo will forever be a badge of our native species pride.

Invaders of the Australian continent

Of course, we can never ignore the direct impacts of humans on the ecosystem. Particularly with European settlement, another plethora of animals were introduced for the first time into Australia; these were predominantly livestock animals or hunting-related species (both as predators and prey). This includes the cane toad, widely regarded as one of the biggest errors in pest control on the planet.

When European settlers in the 1930s attempted to grow sugar cane in the far eastern part of the country, they found their crops decimated by a local beetle. In an effort to eradicate them, they brought over a species of cane toad, with the idea that they would control the beetle population and all would be well. Only, cane toads are particularly lazy and instead of targeting the cane beetles, they just thrived on all the other native invertebrates around. They’re also very resilient and adaptable (and highly toxic), so their numbers exploded and they’ve since spread across a large swathe of the country. Their toxic skin makes them fatal food objects for many native predators and they strongly compete against other similar native animals (such as our own amphibians). The cane toad introduction of 1935 is the poster child of how bad failed pest control can be.

DSC_0867_small
This guy here, he’s a bastard. Spotted in my parent’s backyard in Ipswich, QLD. Source: me, with spite.

But is native always better?

History tells a very stark tale about the poor native animals and the ravenous, rampaging pest species. Because of this, it is a widely adopted philosophical viewpoint that ‘native is always best’. And while I don’t disagree with the sentiment (of course we need to preserve our native wildlife, and not the massively overabundant pests), there are rare examples where nature is a little more complicated. In Australia, this is exemplified in the noisy miner.

The noisy miner is a small bird which, much like its name implies, is incredibly noisy and aggressive. It’s highly abundant, found predominantly throughout urban and suburban areas, and seems to dominate the habitat. It does this by bullying out other bird species from nesting grounds, creating a monopoly on the resource to the exclusion of many other species (even larger ones such as crows and magpies). Despite being native, it seems to have thrived on human alteration of the landscape and is a serious threat to the survival and longevity of many other species. If we thought of it solely under the ‘nature is best’ paradigm, we would dismiss the noisy miner as ‘doing what it should be.’ The truth is really more of a philosophical debate: is it natural to let the noisy miner outcompete many other natives, possibly resulting in their extinction? Or is it only because of human interference (and thus is our responsibility to fix) that the noisy miner is doing so well in the first place? It’s not a simple question to answer, although the latter seems to be incredibly important.

Noisy miner harassing currawong
An example of the aggressive behaviour of the noisy miner (top), swooping down on a pied currawong (bottom). Despite the size differences, noisy miners will frequently attempt to harass and scare off other larger birds. Image source: Bird Ecology Study Group website.

The amazing biodiversity of Australia is a badge of honour we should wear with patriotic pride. Conservation efforts of our endemic fauna are severely limited by a lack of funding and resources, and despite a general acceptance of the importance of diverse ecosystems we remain relatively ineffective at preserving it. Understanding and connecting with our native wildlife, whilst finding methods to control invasive species, is key to conserving our wonderful ecosystems.

Why we should always pander to diversity

Diversity in the natural world

‘Diversity’ is a term that gets used a lot these days, albeit usually in reference to social changes and structures. However, diversity is not merely a human construct and reflects an extremely important aspect of the natural world at a variety of levels. From the smallest genes to the biggest ecosystems, diversity is a trait that confers a massive range of benefits to individuals, populations, species and even the entire globe. Let’s dissect this diversity down at different scales and see how beneficial it can be.

Hierarchy of diversity
The generalised hierarchy at life, with diversity being an important component of each tier. At the smallest tier, genes underpin all life. The collection of genetic diversity is often summarised into a population (as a single cohesive genetic unit). Several populations can be pooled together into a single (usually) cohesive speciesDifferent species are then components of a larger community (which in turn are components of a broader ecosystem).

Genetic diversity

At the smallest scale in the hierarchy of genetic differentiation, we have the genes themselves. It is a well-established concept that having a diversity of genetic variants (alleles) within a population or species is critical to their future adaptation, evolution and persistance. This is because different alleles will have different benefits (or costs) depending on the environmental pressure that influences them; natural selection might favour one allele over another at one time, but a different one as the pressure changes. Having a higher number of alleles within the population or species means that there is a greater chance at least a few individuals will possess an adaptive gene with the changing environment (which we know can be quite rapid and very, very strong). The diversity serves as a ‘buffer’ against extinction; evolution by natural selection functions best when there are many options to choose from.

Without this diversity, species run the risk of having no adaptive genes at the ready to deal with a selective pressure. Either a new adaptive gene must mutate (or come about in other ways, such as through gene flow from another population or species) or the population/species will suffer and potentially go extinct. As strong selection causes the species to dwindle, it enters what is referred to as the ‘extinction vortex’. Without genetic diversity, they can’t adapt: thus, more individuals die off, causing more genetic diversity to be lost from the population. This pattern is a vicious cycle which can inevitably destroy species (without serious intervention).

Extinction vortex
A very dramatic representation of the extinction vortex.

For this reason, captive breeding programs aim to maintain as much of the genetic diversity of the original population as possible. This reduces the probability of entering a downward extinction spiral from inbreeding depression and helps to maintain populations into the future (both the captive one and the wild population when we reintroduce individuals into the wild).

“Population”  diversity

Because genetic diversity is critically important for species survival, we must also try to preserve the diversity of the entire gene pool of a species. This means conserving highly genetically differentiated populations within a species as a priority, as they may be the only ones that possess the necessary adaptive genes to save the rest of the species. This adaptive genetic variation can then be introduced into other populations in genetic rescue programs and serve as a means to semi-naturally allow the species to evolve. Evolutionarily-significant units (ESUs) are one measure of the invaluable nature of genetically unique populations.

Although many more traditional conservationists strongly believe that ESUs should be managed entirely independently of one another (to preserve their evolutionary ‘pedigree’ and prevent the risk of outbreeding depression), it has been suggested that the benefit of genetic rescue in many cases significantly outweighs this risk of outbreeding depression. For some species, this really is an act of rescue: they are at the edge of extinction, and if we do nothing we condemn them to die out.

Introducing genetic material across populations (or even species!) can generate new functional genes that allow the recipient species to adapt to selective pressures. This might sound very strange, and could be extremely rare, but examples of adaptive genetic material in one species originating from another species through hybridisation do exist in nature. For example, the black coat of wolves is a highly adaptive trait in some populations and is encoded for by the Melanocortin 1 receptor (Mc1r) gene. However, the specific mutation in Mc1r gene that generates the black coat colour actually first originated in domestic dogs; when wild wolves and domestic dogs interbred, this mutation was transferred into the wolf gene pool. Natural selection strongly favoured this new variant, and it very rapidly underwent strong positive selection. Thus, the adaptiveness of black wolves is thanks to a domestic dog mutation!

Species diversity

At a higher level of the hierarchy, the diversity of species within a particular community or ecosystem has been shown to be important for the health and stability of said community. Every species, however small or seemingly unimpressive, plays a role in the greater ecosystem balance, through interactions with other species (e.g. as predator, as prey, as competitor) and the abiotic environment. While some species are known to have very strong impacts on the immediate ecosystem (often dubbed ‘keystone species’, such as apex predators), all species have some influence on the world around them (we’re especially good at it).

Species interactions flowchart

The overall health and stability of an ecosystem, as well as the benefits it can provide to all living things (including humans) is largely determined by the diversity of species. For example, ‘habitat engineers’ are types of species that, by altering the physical environment around them (such as to build a home), directly provide new habitat for other species. They are a fundamental underpinning of many incredibly vibrant ecosystems; think of what a reef system would look like if there were no corals in it. There’d be no anemones growing colourfully; no fish to live in them; no sharks to feed on these non-existent fish. This is just one example of a complex ecosystem that truly relies on its inhabiting species to function.

Ecosystem jenga
Much like Jenga, taking out one block (a species) could cause the entire stack (the ecosystem) to collapse in on itself. Even if it stands up, however, the system will still be weaker without the full diversity to support it.

Protecting our diversity

Diversity is not just a social construct and is an important phenomenon in nature, at a variety of different levels. Preserving the full diversity of life, from genetic diversity within populations and species to full species diversity within ecosystems, is critical to maintaining healthy and robust natural systems. The more diversity we have at each level of this hierarchy, the greater robustness and security we will have in the future.

The history of histories: philosophy in biogeography

Biogeography of the globe

The distribution of organisms across the Earth, both over time and across space, is a fundamental aspect of the field of biogeography. But our understanding of the mechanisms by which organisms are distributed across the globe, and how this affects their evolution, can be at times highly enigmatic. Why are Australia and the Americas the only two places that have marsupials? How did lemurs get all the way to Madagascar, and why are they the only primate that has made the trip? How did Darwin’s famous finches get over to the Galápagos, and why are there so many species of them there now?

All of these questions can be addressed with a combination of genetic, environmental and ecological information across a variety of timescales. However, the overall field of biogeography (and phylogeography as a derivative of it) has traditionally been largely rooted on a strong yet changing theoretical basis. The earliest discussions and discoveries related to biogeography as a field of science date back to the 18th Century, and to Carl Linnaeus (to whom we owe our binomial classification system) and Alexander von Humboldt. These scientists (and undoubtedly many others of that era) were among the first to notice how organisms in similar climates (e.g. Australia, South Africa and South America) showed similar physical characteristics despite being so distantly separated (both in their groups and geographic distance). The communities of these regions also appeared to be highly similar. So how could this be possible over such huge distances?

Arctic and fennec final
A pretty unreasonable mechanism (and example) of dispersal in foxes. And yes, all tourists wear sunglasses and Hawaiian shirts, even arctic fox ones.

 

Dispersal or vicariance?

Two main explanations for these patterns are possible; dispersal and vicariance. As one might expect, dispersal denotes that an ancestral species was distributed in one of these places (referred to as the ‘centre of origin’) before it migrated and inhabited the other places. Contrastingly, vicariance suggests that the ancestral species was distributed everywhere originally, covering all contemporary ranges within it. However, changes in geography, climate or the formation of other barriers caused the range of the ancestor to fragment, with each fragmented group evolving into its own distinct species (or group of species).

Dispersal vs vicariance islands
An example of dispersal vs. vicariance patterns of biogeography in an island bird (pale blue). In the top example, the sequential separation of parts of the island also cause parts of the distribution of the original bird species to become fragmented. These fragments each evolve independently of their ancestor and form new species (red, and then blue). In the bottom example, the island geography doesn’t change but in rare events a bird disperses from the main island onto a new island. The new selective pressures of that island cause the dispersed birds to evolve into new species (red and blue). In both examples, islands that were recently connected or are easy to disperse across do not generate new species (in the sandy island in the bottom right). You’ll notice that both processes result in the same biogeographic distribution of species.

In initial biogeographic science, dispersal was the most heavily favoured explanation. At the time, there was no clear mechanism by which organisms could be present all over the globe without some form of dispersal: it was generally believed that the world was a static, unmoving system. Dispersal was well supported by some biological evidence such as the diversification of Darwin’s finches across the Galápagos archipelago. Thus, this concept was supported through the proposals of a number of prominent scientists such as Charles Darwin and A.R. Wallace. For others, however, the distance required for dispersal (such as across entire oceans) seemed implausible and biologically unrealistic.

 

A paradigm shift in biogeography

Two particular developments in theory are credited with a paradigm shift in the field; cladistics and plate tectonics. Cladistics simply involved using shared biological characteristics to reconstruct the evolutionary relationships of species (think like phylogenetics, but using physical traits instead of genetic sequence). Just as importantly, however, was plate tectonic theory, which provided a clear way for organisms to spread across the planet. By understanding that, deep in the past, all continents had been directly connected to one another provides a convenient explanation for how species groups spread. Instead of requiring for species to travel across entire oceans, continental drift meant that one widespread and ancient ancestor on the historic supercontinent (Pangaea; or subsequently Gondwana and Laurasia) could become fragmented. It only required that groups were very old, but not necessarily very dispersive.

Lemur dispersal
Surf’s up, dudes! Although continental drift was no doubt an important factor in the distribution and dispersal of many organisms on Earth, it actually probably wasn’t the reason lemurs got to Madagascar. Sorry for the mislead.

From these advances in theory, cladistic vicariance biogeography was born. The field rapidly overtook dispersal as the most likely explanation for biogeographic patterns across the globe by not only providing a clear mechanism to explain these but also an analytical framework to test questions relating to these patterns. Further developments into the analytical backbone of cladistic vicariance allowed for more nuanced questions of biogeography to be asked, although still fundamentally ignored the role of potential dispersals in explaining species’ distributions.

Modern philosophy of biogeography

So, what is the current state of the field? Well, the more we research biogeographic patterns with better data (such as with genomics) the more we realise just how complicated the history of life on Earth can be. Complex modelling (such as Bayesian methods) allow us to more explicitly test the impact of Earth history events on our study species, and can provide more detailed overview of the evolutionary history of the species (such as by directly estimating times of divergence, amount of dispersal, extent of range shifts).

From a theoretical perspective, the consistency of patterns of groups is always in question and exactly what determines what species occurs where is still somewhat debatable. However, the greater number of types of data we can now include (such as geological, paleontological, climatic, hydrological, genetic…the list goes on!) allows us to paint a better picture of life on Earth. By combining information about what we know happened on Earth, with what we know has happened to species, we can start to make links between Earth history and species history to better understand how (or if) these events have shaped evolution.

Surviving the Real-World Apocalypse

The changing world

Climate change seems to be the centrefold of a large amount of scientific research and media attention, and rightly so: it has the capacity to affect every living organism on the planet. It’s our duty as curators and residents of Earth to be responsible for our influences on the global environmental stage. While a significant part of this involves determining causes and solutions to our contributions to climate change, we also need to know how extensive the effects will be: for example, how can we predict how well species will do in the future?

Predicting the effect of climate change on all of the world’s biodiversity is an immense task. Climate change itself is a complicated system, and causes diverse, interconnected and complex alterations to both global and local climate. Adding on top of this, though, is that climate affects different species in different ways; where some species might be sensitive to some climatic variables (such as rainfall, available sunlight, seasonality), others may be more tolerant to the same factors. But all living things share some requirements, so surely there must be some consistency in their responses to climate change, right?

Apocalypse 2
Lucky for Mr Fish here, he’s responding to a (very dramatic) climate change much, much better than his bird counterpart.

How predictable are species responses to climate change?

Well, evidence would surprisingly suggest not. Many species, even closely related ones, can show very different responses to the exact same climatic pressures or biogeographical events. There are a number of different traits that might affect a species’ ability to adapt, particularly their adaptive genetic diversity (which underpins ‘adaptive potential’). Thus, we need good information of a variety of genetic, physiological and life history traits to be able to make predictions about how likely a species is to adapt and respond to future (and current) climate changes.

Although this can be hard to study in species of high extinction risk (getting a good number of samples is always an issue…), traditional phylogeographic methods might help us to make some comparisons. See, although the modern Earth is rapidly changing (undoubtedly influenced by human society), the climate of the globe has always varied to some degree. There has always been some tumultuousness in the climate and specific Earth history events like volcano eruptions, sea-level changes, or glaciation periods (‘ice ages’) have had diverse effects on organisms globally.

Using comparative phylogeography to predict species responses

One tool for looking at how different species have, in the past, responded to the same biogeographical force is the domain of ‘comparative phylogeography’. Phylogeography itself is something we have discussed before: the ‘comparative’ aspect simply means comparing (with complex statistical methods) these patterns across different and often unrelated species to see how universal (‘congruent’) or unique (‘incongruent’) these patterns are among species. The more broadly we look at the species community in the region, the more we can observe widespread effects of any given environmental or geographical event: if we only look at fish, for example, we might not to be able to infer what response mammals, birds or invertebrates have had to our given event. Sometimes this still meets the scale we wish to focus; other times, we want to see how all the species of an area have been affected.

Actual island diagram
An (very busy) example of different species responses to a single environmental event. In this example, we have three species (a fish, a lizard, and a bird) all living on the same island. In the middle of the island, there is a small mountain range (A). At this point in time, all three species are connected across the whole island; fish can travel via lakes and wetlands (green arrows), lizards can travel across the land (blue arrow) and birds can fly anywhere. However, as the mountain range grows with tectonic movements, the waterways are altered and the north and south are disconnected (B). The fish species is now split into two evolutionarily separate groups (green and gold), while lizards and birds are not. As the range expands further, however, the dispersal route for lizards is cut off, causing them to eventually also become separated into blue and black groups (C). Birds, however, have no problems flying over the mountain range and remain one unified and connected orange group over time (D). Thus, each species has a different response to the formation of the mountain range.
Evol history of island diagram
The phylogenetic history of the three different species in the above example. As you can see, each lineage has a slightly different pattern; birds show no divergences at all, whereas the timing of the lizard and fish N/S splits are different (i.e. temporally incongruent).

Typically, comparative phylogeographic studies have looked at the neutral components of species’ evolution (as is the realm of traditional phylogeography). This includes studying the size of populations over time, how well connected they are and were, what their spatial patterns are and how these relate to the environment. Comparing all of these patterns across species can allow us to start painting a fuller picture of the history of biota in a region. In this way, we can start to see exactly which species have shown what responses and start to relate these to the characteristics that allowed them to respond in that certain way (and including adaptation in our studies). So, what kinds of traits are important?

What traits matter? Who wins?

Often, we find that life history traits of an organism better dictates how they will respond to a certain pressure than other factors such as phylogeny (e.g. one group does not always do better than another). Instead, individual species with certain physical characteristics might handle the pressure better than others. For example, a fish, bird and snake that are all able to tolerate higher temperatures than other fish, birds or snakes in that region are more likely to survive a drought. In this case, none of the groups (fish, birds or snakes) inherently do better than the other two groups. Thus, it can be hard to predict how a large swathe of species will respond to any given environmental change, unless we understand the physical characteristics of every species.

Climate change risk flowchart
A generalised framework of various factors, and their interactions, on the vulnerability of species under current and future climate changes by Williams et al. 2018. The schematic includes genetic, ecological, physical and environmental factors and how these can interact with one another to alleviate or exacerbate the risk of extinction.

We can also see that other physiological or ecological traits, such as climatic preferences and tolerance thresholds, can be critical for adapting to climatic pressures. Naturally, the genetic diversity of species is also an important component underlying their ability to adapt to these new selective pressures and to survive into the future. Trying to incorporate all of these factors into a projected model can be difficult, but with more data of higher quality we can start to make more refined predictions. But by understanding how particular traits influence how well a species may adapt to a changing climate, as well as knowing the what traits different species have, might just be the key to predicting who wins and who dies in the real-world Game of Thrones.

The (false) dichotomy of art and science

Art vs. Science?

A fellow science student once drunkenly said that “I am a biologist…I don’t understand art.” Although somewhat bemusing (both in and out of context), it raises a particular philosophical idea that I can’t agree with: that art and science directly contradict one another.

It’s a somewhat clichéd paradigm that art and science must work at odds with one another. The idea that art embraces emotion, creativity and abstract perception whilst science is solely dictated by rationality, methodology and universal statistics is one that still seems to be somewhat pervasive throughout society and culture. While there seems to be a more recent shift against this, with both ends of the spectrum acknowledging the importance of the other in their respective fields, the intersection of art and science has a long and productive history.

img003
A piece I did for a high school assignment some years ago. The artwork was meant to be the visual representation of Edgar Allen Poe’s 1829 poem “Sonnet- To Science“, by showing the dichotomy of the beauty of the natural world (left) vs. the cold, rigorousness of science (right).

Typically, the disjunction from the emotional and evocative state of people with science is through how the science is written. In many formats (particularly for the most widely used scientific journals), artistic and emotional writing is seen to detract from the overall message and objectivity of the piece itself. And while appeal to emotion can certainly take away from or mislead the message of the writing, it’s important to connect and attract readers to the work in the first place. Trying to find a possible avenue to work in personal style and artistry into an academic paper is an incredibly difficult affair. This is a large contributor to the merit of non-journalistic forms of scientific communication such as books, poetry and even blogs (this was one motivator in starting this blog, in fact).

It might come as a surprise to readers that I love art quite a lot, especially given the (lack of) quality of the drawings in this blog. But I’ve always tried to flex my creative side and particular when I was a younger was a more avid writer and sketcher. And that truth of the matter is that I don’t feel that the artistic side of a person has to be at odds with their scientific side. In fact, the two directly complement each other by linking our rational, objective understanding of the world with the emotional, expressive and ideological aspects of the human personality.

IMG_20180226_163209_095
My own (non-blog) artwork tends to combine both imagery from the natural world and more emotional themes (e.g. mental health).

The art of science

From one angle, science is actively driven by creativity, ambition and often abstract ideation. The desire to delve deep to find new knowledge is intrinsically an emotional and philosophical process and to pretend that science is devoid of passion discredits both the research and the researcher. Entire disciplines of biology, for example, find themselves driven by science and people with deep emotional connections to the natural world and a desire to both understand and protect the diversity of life. The works of John Gould in his explorations of the Australian biota remain some of my favourites for both scientific and artistic merit.

The science of art

From the other direction, science can also inform artistic works by expanding the human knowledge and experience with which to draw inspiration from. Naturally, this is an intrinsic part of genres such as science fiction, but many works of horror, abstraction, fantasy, thriller also draw on theories and revolutions brought about by scientific discovery. The further we understand the processes of the universe through scientific discovery, the greater the context and extent of our philosophical and emotional perspectives can be allowed to vary.

We Are All Stars
A piece by local artist and good friend of mine (and also the designer of The G-CAT logo!) Michelle Fedornak. She describes her piece (dubbed ‘We Are All Stars’) as inspired by the explorations of the Mars Curiosity rover and tackles themes of identity and isolation in the galactic space. Thus, her work combines the philosophical and emotional side of scientific exploration with the artistry and consciousness of human identity.

Unity

Gone are the days of dichotomy between 18-19th Century Impressionism and Enlightenment. Instead, the unity of science and art in the modern world can have significant positive contributions to both fields. Although there are still some elements of resistance between the two avenues, it is my belief that by allowing the intrinsically emotional nature of science to be expressed (albeit moderated by reason and logic) will allow science to influence a greater number of people, an especially important connection in the age of cynicism.

Age and dating with phylogenetics

Timing the phylogeny

Understanding the evolutionary history of species can be a complicated matter, both from theoretical and analytical perspectives. Although phylogenetics addresses many questions about evolutionary history, there are a number of limitations we need to consider in our interpretations.

One of these limitations we often want to explore in better detail is the estimation of the divergence times within the phylogeny; we want to know exactly when two evolutionary lineages (be they genera, species or populations) separated from one another. This is particularly important if we want to relate these divergences to Earth history and environmental factors to better understand the driving forces behind evolution and speciation. A traditional phylogenetic tree, however, won’t show this: the tree is scaled in terms of the genetic differences between the different samples in the tree. The rate of genetic differentiation is not always a linear relationship with time and definitely doesn’t appear to be universal.

 

Anatomy of phylogenies.jpg
The general anatomy of a phylogenetic tree. A phylogeny describes the relationships of tips (i.e. which are more closely related than others; referred to as the topology), how different these tips are (the length of the branches) and the order they separated in time (separations shown by the nodes). Different trees can share some traits but not others: the red box shows two phylogenetic trees with similar branch lengths (all of the branches are roughly the same) but different topology (the tips connect differently: A and B are together on the left but not on the right, for example). Conversely, two trees can have the same topology, but show differing lengths in the branches of the same tree (blue box). Note that the tips are all in the same positions in these two trees. Typically, it’s easier to read a tree from right to left: the two tips who have branches that meet first are most similar genetically; the longer it takes for two tips to meet along the branches, the less similar they are genetically.

How do we do it?

The parameters

There are a number of parameters that are required for estimating divergence times from a phylogenetic tree. These can be summarised into two distinct categories: the tree model and the substitution model.

The first one of these is relatively easy to explain; it describes the exact relationship of the different samples in our dataset (i.e. the phylogenetic tree). Naturally, this includes the topology of the tree (which determines which divergences times can be estimated for in the first place). However, there is another very important factor in the process: the lengths of the branches within the phylogenetic tree. Branch lengths are related to the amount of genetic differentiation between the different tips of the tree. The longer the branch, the more genetic differentiation that must have accumulated (and usually also meaning that longer time has occurred from one end of the branch to the other). Even two phylogenetic trees with identical topology can give very different results if they vary in their branch lengths (see the above Figure).

The second category determines how likely mutations are between one particular type of nucleotide and another. While the details of this can get very convoluted, it essentially determines how quickly we expect certain mutations to accumulate over time, which will inevitably alter our predictions of how much time has passed along any given branch of the tree.

Calibrating the tree

However, at least one another important component is necessary to turn divergence time estimates into absolute, objective times. An external factor with an attached date is needed to calibrate the relative branch divergences; this can be in the form of the determined mutation rate for all of the branches of the tree or by dating at least one node in the tree using additional information. These help to anchor either the mutation rate along the branches or the absolute date of at least one node in the tree (with the rest estimated relative to this point). The second method often involves placing a time constraint on a particular node of the tree based on prior information about the biogeography of the species (for example, we might know one species likely diverged from another after a mountain range formed: the age of the mountain range would be our constraints). Alternatively, we might include a fossil in the phylogeny which has been radiocarbon dated and place an absolute age on that instead.

Ammonite comic.jpg
Don’t you know it’s rude to ask an ammomite her age?

In regards to the former method, mutation rates describe how fast genetic differentiation accumulates as evolution occurs along the branch. Although mutations gradually accumulate over time, the rate at which they occur can depend on a variety of factors (even including the environment of the organism). Even within the genome of a single organism, there can be variation in the mutation rate: genes, for example, often gain mutations slower than non-coding region.

Although mutation rates (generally in the form of a ‘molecular clock’) have been traditionally used in smaller datasets (e.g. for mitochondrial DNA), there are inherent issues with its assumptions. One is that this rate will apply to all branches in a tree equally, when different branches may have different rates between them. Second, different parts of the genome (even within the same individual) will have different evolutionary rates (like genes vs. non-coding regions). Thus, we tend to prefer using calibrations from fossil data or based on biogeographic patterns (such as the time a barrier likely split two branches based on geological or climatic data).

The analytical framework

All of these components are combined into various analytical frameworks or programs, each of which handle the data in different ways. Many of these are Bayesian model-based analysis, which in short generates hypothetical models of evolutionary history and divergence times for the phylogeny and tests how well it fits the data provided (i.e. the phylogenetic tree). The algorithm then alters some aspect(s) of the model and tests whether this fits the data better than the previous model and repeats this for potentially millions of simulations to get the best model. Although models are typically a simplification of reality, they are a much more tractable approach to estimating divergence times (as well as a number of other types of evolutionary genetics analyses which incorporating modelling).

Molecular dating pipeline
A (believe it or not, simplified) pipeline for estimating divergence times from a phylogeny. 1) We obtain our DNA sequences for our samples: in this example, we’ll see each Sample (A-E) is a representative of a single species. We align these together to make sure we’re comparing the same part of the genome across all of them. 2) We estimate the phylogenetic tree for our samples/species. In a Bayesian framework, this means creating simulation models containing a certain substitution model and a given tree model (containing certain topology and branch lengths). Together, these two models form the likelihood model: we then test how well this model explains our data (i.e. the likelihood of getting the patterns in our data if this model was true). We repeat these simulations potentially hundreds of thousands of times until we pinpoint the most likely model we can get. 3) Using our resulting phylogeny, we then calibrate some parts of it based on external information. This could either be by including a carbon-dated fossil (F) within the phylogeny, or constraining the age of one node based on biogeographic information (the red circle and cross). 4) Using these calibrations as a reference, we then estimated the most likely ages of all the splits in the tree, getting our final dated phylogeny.

Despite the developments in the analytical basis of estimating divergence times in the last few decades, there are still a number of limitations inherent in the process. Many of these relate to the assumptions of the underlying model (such as the correct and accurate phylogenetic tree and the correct estimations of evolutionary rate) used to build the analysis and generate simulations. In the case of calibrations, it is also critical that they are correctly dated based on independent methods: inaccurate radiocarbon dating of a fossil, for example, could throw out all of the estimations in the entire tree. That said, these factors are intrinsic to any phylogenetic analysis and regularly considered by evolutionary biologists in the interpretations and discussions of results (such as by including confidence intervals of estimations to demonstrate accuracy).

Understanding the temporal aspects of evolution and being able to relate them to a real estimate of age is a difficult affair, but an important component of many evolutionary studies. Obtaining good estimates of the timing of divergence of populations and species through molecular dating is but one aspect in building the picture of the history of all organisms, including (and especially) humans.