The MolEcol Toolbox: Species Distribution Modelling

Where on Earth are species?

Understanding the spatial distribution of species is a critical component for many different aspects of biological studies. Particularly for conservation, the biogeography of regions is a determinant factor for designating and managing biodiversity hotspots and management units. Or understanding the biogeographical mechanisms that have shaped modern biodiversity may allow us to understand how species will change under future climate change scenarios, and how their distributions will (and have) shift(ed).

Typically, the maximum distribution of species is based on their ecological tolerances: that is, the most extreme environments they can tolerate and proliferate within. Of course, there are a huge number of other factors on top of just natural environment which can shape species distributions, particularly related to human-induced environmental changes (or introducing new species as invasive pests, which we seem to be good at). But exactly where species are and why they occur there are intrinsically linked to the adaptive characteristics of species relative to their environment.

Species distribution modelling

The connection of a species distribution with innate environmental tolerances is the background for a type of analysis we call species distribution modelling (SDM) or environmental niche modelling (ENM). Species distribution modelling seeks to correlate the locations where a species occurs with the local environment around those sites to predict where the species should occur. This is an effective tool for trying to understand the distribution of species that might be tricky to study so thoroughly in the wild; either because they are hard to catch, live in very remote areas, or because they are highly threatened. There are a number of different algorithms and data types that will work with SDM, and there is always ongoing debate about ‘best practices’ in modelling techniques.

SDM method.jpg
The generalised pipeline of SDM, taken from Svenning et al. (2011). By correlating species occurrence data (bottom left) with environmental data (top left), we can develop a model that describes how the species is distributed based on environmental limitations (top right). From here, we can choose to validate the model with other methods (top and bottom centre) or see how the distribution might change with different environmental changes (e.g. bottom right).

A basic how-to on running SDM

The first major component that is needed for SDM is the occurrence data. Some methods will work with presence-only data: that is, a map of GPS coordinates which describes where that species has been found. Others work with presence-absence data, which may require including sites of known non-occurrence. This is an important aspect as the non-occurring sites defines the environment beyond the tolerance threshold of the species: however, it’s very likely that we haven’t sampled every location where they occur, and there will be some GPS co-ordinates that appear to be absent of our species where they actually occur. There are some different analytical techniques which can account for uneven sampling across the real distribution of the species, but they can get very technical.

Edited_koala_data.jpg
An example of species (occurrence only) locality data (with >72,000 records) for the koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) across Australia, taken from the Atlas of Living Australia. Carefully checking the locality data is important, as visual inspection clearly shows records where koalas are not native: they might have been recorded from an introduced individual, given incorrect GPS coordinates or incorrectly identified (red circles).

The second major component is our environmental data. Typically, we want to include environmental data for the types of variables that are likely to constrain the distribution of our species: often temperature and precipitation variables are included, as these two largely predict habitat types. However, it can also be important to include non-climatic variables such as topography (e.g. elevation, slope) in our model to help constrain our predictions to a more reasonable area. It is also important to test for correlation between our variables, as using many variables which are highly correlated may ‘overfit’ the model and underestimate the range of the distribution by placing an unrealistic number of restrictions on the model.

Enviro_maps.jpg
An example of some of the environmental data/maps we might choose to include in a species distribution model, obtained from the Atlas of Living AustraliaA) Mean annual temperature. B) Mean annual precipitation. C) Elevation. D) Weighted distance to nearest waterbody (e.g. rivers, lakes, streams).

Our SDM analysis of choice (e.g. MaxEnt) will then use various algorithms to build a model which best correlates where the species occurs with the environmental variables at those sites. The model tries to create a set of environmental conditions that best encapsulate the occurrence sites whilst excluding the non-occurrence sites from the prediction. From the final model, we can evaluate how strong the effect of each of our variables is on the distribution of the species, and also how well our overall model predicts the locality data.

Projecting our SDM into the past and the future

One reason to use SDM is the ability to project distributions onto alternative environments based on the correlative model. For example, if we have historic data (say, from the last glacial maximum, 21,000 years ago), we can use our predictions of how the species responds to climatic variables and compare that to the environment back then to see how the distribution would have shifted. Similarly, if we have predictions for future climates based on climate change models, we can try and predict how species distributions may shift in the future (an important part of conservation management, naturally).

 

Correct LGM projection example.png
An example of projecting a species distribution model back in time (in this case, to the Last Glacial Maximum 21,000 years ago), taken from Pelletier et al. (2016). On the left is the contemporary distribution of each species; on the right the historic projection. The study focused on three different species of American salamanders and how they had evolved and responded to historic climate change. This figure clearly shows how the distribution of the species have changed over time, particularly how the top two species have significantly reduced in distribution in modern times.

 

Species distribution modelling continues to be a useful tool for conservation and evolution studies, and improvements in analytical algorithms, available environmental data and increased sampling of species will similarly improve SDM. Particularly, improvements in environmental projections from both the distant past and future will improve our ability to understand and predict how species will change, and have changed, with climatic changes

Rescuing the damselfish in distress: rescue or depression?

Conservation management

Managing and conserving threatened and endangered species in the wild is a difficult process. There are a large number of possible threats, outcomes, and it’s often not clear which of these (or how many of these) are at play at any one given time. Thankfully, there are also a large number of possible conservation tools that we might be able to use to protect, bolster and restore species at risk.

Using genetics in conservation

Naturally, we’re going to take a look at the more genetics-orientated aspects of conservation management. We’ve discussed many times the various angles and approaches we can take using large-scale genetic data, some of which include:
• studying the evolutionary history and adaptive potential of species
• developing breeding programs using estimates of relatedness to increase genetic diversity
identifying and describing new species for government legislation
• identifying biodiversity hotspots and focus areas for conservation
• identifying population boundaries for effective management/translocations

Genetics flowchart.jpg
An example of just some of the conservation applications of genetics research that we’ve talked about previously on The G-CAT.

This last point is a particularly interesting one, and an area of conservation research where genetics is used very often. Most definitions of a ‘population’ within a species rely on using genetic data and analysis (such as Fst) to provide a statistical value of how different groups of organisms are within said species. Ignoring some of the philosophical issues with the concept of a population versus a species due to the ‘speciation continuum’ (read more about that here), populations are often interpreted as a way to cluster the range of a species into separate units for conservation management. In fact, the most commonly referred to terms for population structure and levels are evolutionarily-significant units (ESUs), which are defined as a single genetically connected group of organisms that share an evolutionary history that is distinct from other populations; and management units (MUs), which may not have the same degree of separation but are still definably different with enough genetic data.

Hierarchy of structure.jpg
A diagram of the hierarchy of structure within a species. Remember that ESUs, by definition, should be evolutionary different from one another (i.e. adaptively divergent) whilst MUs are not necessarily divergent to the same degree.

This can lead to a particular paradigm of conservation management: keeping everything separate and pure is ‘best practice’. The logic is that, as these different groups have evolved slightly differently from one another (although there is often a lot of grey area about ‘differently enough’), mixing these groups together is a bad idea. Particularly, this is relevant when we consider translocations (“it’s never acceptable to move an organism from one ESU into another”) and captive breeding programs (“it’s never acceptable to breed two organisms together from different ESUs”). So, why not? Why does it matter if they’re a little different?

Outbreeding depression

Well, the classic reasoning is based on a concept called ‘outbreeding depression’. We’ve mentioned outbreeding depression before, and it is a key concept kept in mind when developing conservation programs. The simplest explanation for outbreeding depression is that evolution, through the strict process of natural selection, has pushed particularly populations to evolve certain genetic variants for a certain selective pressure. These can vary across populations, and it may mean that populations are locally adapted to a specific set of environmental conditions, with the specific set of genetic variants that best allow them to do this.

However, when you mix in the genetic variants that have evolved in a different population, by introducing a foreign individual and allowing them to breed, you essentially ‘tarnish’ the ‘pure’ gene pool of that population with what could be very bad (maladaptive) genes. The hybrid offspring of ‘native’ and this foreign individual will be less adaptive than their ‘pure native’ counterparts, and the overall adaptiveness of the population will decrease as those new variants spread (depending on the number introduced, and how negative those variants are).

Outbreeding depression example figure.jpg
An example of how outbreeding depression can affect a species. The original red fish population is not doing well- it is of conservation concern, and has very little genetic diversity (only the blue gene in this example). So, we decide to introduce new genetic diversity by adding in green fish, which have the orange gene. However, the mixture of the two genes and the maladaptive nature of the orange gene actually makes the situation worse, with the offspring showing less fitness than their preceding generations.

You might be familiar with inbreeding depression, which is based on the loss of genetic diversity from having too similar individuals breeding together to produce very genetically ‘weak’ offspring through inbreeding. Outbreeding depression could be thought of as the opposite extreme; breeding too different individuals introduced too many ‘bad’ alleles into the population, diluting the ‘good’ alleles.

Inbreeding vs outbreeding figure.jpg
An overly simplistic representation of how inbreeding and outbreeding depression can reduce overall fitness of a species. In inbreeding depression, the lack of genetic diversity due to related individuals breeding with one another makes them at risk of being unable to adapt to new pressures. Contrastingly, adding in new genes from external populations which aren’t fit for the target population can also reduce overall fitness by ‘diluting’ natural, adaptive allele frequencies in the population.

Genetic rescue

It might sound awfully purist to only preserve the local genetic diversity, and to assume that any new variants could be bad and tarnish the gene pool. And, surprisingly enough, this is an area of great debate within conservation genetics.

The counterpart to the outbreeding depression concerns is the idea of genetic rescue. For populations with already severely depleted gene pools, lacking the genetic variation to be able to adapt to new pressures (such as contemporary climate change), the situation seems incredibly dire. One way to introduce new variation, which might be the basis of new adaptation, bringing in individuals from another population of the same species can provide the necessary genetic diversity to help that population bounce back.

Genetic rescue example figure.jpg
An example of genetic rescue. This circumstance is identical to the one above, with the key difference being in the fitness of the introduced gene. The orange gene in this example is actually beneficial to the target population: by providing a new, adaptive allele for natural selection to act upon, overall fitness is increased for the red fish population.

The balance

So, what’s the balance between the two? Is introducing new genetic variation a bad idea, and going to lead to outbreeding depression; or a good idea, and lead to genetic rescue? Of course, many of the details surrounding the translocation of new genetic material is important: how different are the populations? How different are the environments (i.e. natural selection) between them? How well will the target population take up new individuals and genes?

Overall, however, the more recent and well-supported conclusion is that fears regarding outbreeding depression are often strongly exaggerated. Bad alleles that have been introduced into a population can be rapidly purged by natural selection, and the likelihood of a strongly maladaptive allele spreading throughout the population is unlikely. Secondly, given the lack of genetic diversity in the target population, most that need the genetic rescue are so badly maladaptive as it is (due to genetic drift and lack of available adaptive alleles) that introducing new variants is unlikely to make the situation much worse.

Purging and genetic rescue figure.jpg
An example of how introducing maladaptive alleles might not necessarily lead to decreased fitness. In this example, we again start with our low diversity red fish population, with only one allele (AA). To help boost genetic diversity, we introduce orange fish (with the TT allele) and green fish (with the GG allele) into the population. However, the TT allele is not very adaptive in this new environment, and individuals with the TT gene quickly die out (i.e. be ‘purged’). Individual with the GG gene, however, do well, and continue to integrate into the red population. Over time, these two variants will mix together as the two populations hybridise and overall fitness will increase for the population.

That said, outbreeding depression is not an entirely trivial concept and there are always limitations in genetic rescue procedures. For example, it would be considered a bad idea to mix two different species together and make hybrids, since the difference between two species, compared to two populations, can be a lot stronger and not necessarily a very ‘natural’ process (whereas populations can mix and disjoin relatively regularly).

The reality of conservation management

Conservation science is, at its core, a crisis discipline. It exists solely as an emergency response to the rapid extinction of species and loss of biodiversity across the globe. The time spent trying to evaluate the risk of outbreeding depression – instead of immediately developing genetic rescue programs – can cause species to tick over to the afterlife before we get a clear answer. Although careful consideration and analysis is a requirement of any good conservation program, preventing action due to almost paranoid fear is not a luxury endangered species can afford.

Notes from the Field: Nugs

Scientific name

Nuggula minutus

Meaning: Nuggula from [nug] in Dwarven; minutus from [smaller] in Latin.

Translation: smallests of the nugs; the smallest species of the broader nug taxonomic group.

Common name

Common nug

Nug creature
A wild nug.

Taxonomic status

Kingdom Animalia; Phylum Chordata; Class Mammalia; Order Eulipotyphyla; Family Talpidae; Genus Nuggula; Species minus

Conservation status

Least concern

Distribution

Throughout the underground regions of Thedas; full extent of distribution possibly spans the full area of the continent.

Thedas Map.jpg
The continent of Thedas. The nug is likely distributed across much of the subterranean landmass, although the exact distribution is unknown.

Habitat

Nugs are primarly subterranean species, largely inhabiting the underground tunnels and cave systems occupied by Dwarven civilisation. However, nugs can be found on the surface predominantly in forested regions with accessible passageways into the subterranean realm.

Behaviour and ecology

Nugs are non-confrontational omnivorous species, preferring to hide and delve in the dark underground systems below the world of Thedas. Thus, nugs will typically avoid contact with people or predators by hiding in various crevices, using their pale skin to blend in with the surrounding rock faces. Reports of nugs in the wild demonstrate that nugs are remarkably inefficient at predator avoidance, despite their physiology; however, nug populations do not appear to suffer dramatically with predator presence, suggesting that either predators are too few to significantly impact population size or that alternative behaviours might allow them to rapidly bounce back from natural declines.

Given the lack of consistent light within their habitat, nugs are effectively blind, retaining only limited eyesight required for moving around above the surface. Nugs feed on a large variety of food sources, preferring insects but resorting to mineral deposits if available food resources are depleted. Their generalist diet may be one physiological trait that has allowed the nug to become some widespread and abundant historically.

Demography

Although the nug is a widespread and abundant species, they are heavily reliant on the connections of the Deep Roads to maintain connectivity and gene flow. With the gradual declination of Dwarven abundance and the loss of entire regions of the underground civilisation, it is likely that many areas of the nug distribution have become isolated and suffering from varying levels of inbreeding depression. Given the lack of access to these populations, whether some have collapsed since their isolation is unknown and potentially isolated populations may have even speciated if local environments have changed significantly.

Adaptive traits

Nugs are highly adapted to low-light, subterranean conditions, and show many phenotypic traits related to this kind of environment. The reduction of eyesight capability is considered a regression of unusable traits in underground habitats; instead, nugs show a highly developed and specialised nasal system. The high sensitivity of the nasal cavity makes them successful forages in the deep caverns of the underworld, and the elongated maw of the nug allows them to dig into buried food sources with ease. One of the more noticeable (and often disconcerting) traits of the nug is their human-like hands; the development of individual digits similar to fingers allows the nug to grip and manipulate rocky surfaces with surprising ease.

Management actions

Re-establishment of habitat corridors through the clearing and revival of the Deep Roads is critical for both reconnecting isolated populations of nugs and restoring natural gene flow, but also allowing access to remote populations for further studies. A combination of active removal of resident Darkspawn and population genetics analysis to accurately assess the conservation status of the species. That said, given the commercial value of the nug as a food source for many societies, establishing consistent sustainable farming practices may serve to both boost the nug populations and also provide an industry for many people.

Moving right along: dispersal and population structure

The impact of species traits on evolution

Although we often focus on the genetic traits of species in molecular ecology studies, the physiological (or phenotypic) traits are equally as important in shaping their evolution. These different traits are not only the result themselves of evolutionary forces but may further drive and shape evolution into the future by changing how an organism interacts with the environment.

There are a massive number of potential traits we could focus on, each of which could have a large number of different (and interacting) impacts on evolution. One that is often considered, and highly relevant for genetic studies, is the influence of dispersal capability.

Dispersal

Dispersal is essentially the process of an organism migrating to a new habitat, to the point of the two being used almost interchangeably. Often, however, we regard dispersal as a migration event that actually has genetic consequences; particularly, if new populations are formed or if organisms move from one population to another. This can differ from straight migration in that animals that migrate might not necessarily breed (and thus pass on genes) into a new region during their migration; thus, evidence of those organisms will not genetically proliferate into the future through offspring.

Naturally, the ability of organisms to disperse is highly variable across the tree of life and reliant on a number of other physiological factors. Marine mammals, for example, can disperse extremely far throughout their lifetimes, whereas some very localised species like some insects may not move very far within their lifetime at all. The movement of organisms directly facilitates the movement of genetic material, and thus has significant impacts on the evolution and genetic diversity of species and populations.

Dispersal vs pop structure
The (simplistic) relationship between dispersal capability and one aspect of population genetics, population structure (measured as Fst). As organisms are more capable of dispersing longer distance (or more frequently), the barriers between populations become weaker.

Highly dispersive species

At one end of the dispersal spectrum, we have highly dispersive species. These can move extremely long distances and thus mix genetic material from a wide range of habitats and places into one mostly-cohesive population. Because of this, highly dispersive species often have strong colonising abilities and can migrate into a range of different habitats by tolerating a wide range of conditions. For example, a single whale might hang around Antarctica for part of the year but move to the tropics during other times. Thus, this single whale must be able to tolerate both ends of the temperature spectrum.

As these individuals occupy large ranges, localised impacts are unlikely to critically affect their full distribution. Individual organisms that are occupying an unpleasant space can easily move to a more favourable habitat (provided that one exists). Furthermore, with a large population (which is more likely with highly dispersive species), genetic drift is substantially weaker and natural selection (generally) has a higher amount of genetic diversity to work with. This is, of course, assuming that dispersal leads to a large overall population, which might not be the case for species that are critically endangered (such as the cheetah).

Highly dispersive animals often fit the “island model” of Wright, where individual subpopulations all have equal proportions of migrants from all other subpopulations. In reality, this is rare (or unreasonable) due to environmental or physiological limitations of species; distance, for example, is not implicitly factored into the basic island model.

Island model
The Wright island model of population structure. In this example, different independent populations are labelled in the bold letters, with dispersal pathways demonstrated by the different arrows. In the island model, dispersal is equally likely between all populations (including from BD in this example, even though there aren’t any arrows showing it). Naturally, this is not overly realistic and so the island model is used mostly as a neutral, base model.

Intermediately dispersing species

A large number of species, however, are likely to occupy a more intermediate range of dispersal ability. These species might be able to migrate to neighbouring populations, or across a large proportion of their geographic range, but individuals from one end of the range are still somewhat isolated from individuals at the other end.

This often leads to some effect of population structure; different portions of the geographic range are genetically segregated from one another depending on how much gene flow (i.e. dispersal) occurs between populations. In the most simplest scenario, this can lead to what we call isolation-by-distance. Rather than forming totally independent populations, gene flow occurs across short ranges between adjacent ‘populations’. This causes a gradient of genetic differentiation, with one end of the range being clearly genetically different to the other end, with a gradual slope throughout the range. We see this often in marine invertebrates, for example, which might have somewhat localised dispersal but still occupy a large range by following oceanographic currents.

River IDB network
An example of how an isolation-by-distance population network might come about. In this example, we have a series of populations (the different pie charts) spread throughout a river system (that blue thing). The different pie charts represent how much of the genetics of that population matches one end of the river: either the blue end (left) or red end (right). Populations can easily disperse into adjacent populations (the green arrows) but less so to further populations. This leads to gradual changes across the length of the river, with the far ends of the river clearly genetically distinct from the opposite end but relatively similar to neighbouring populations.
River IDB pop structure.jpg
The genetic representation of the above isolation-by-distance example. Each column represents a single population (in the previous figure, a pie chart), with the different colours also representing the relative genetic identity of that population. As you can see, moving from Population 1 to 10 leads to a gradient (decreasing) in blue genes but increase in red genes. The inverse can be said moving in the opposite direction. That said, comparing Population 1 and Population 10 shows that they’re clearly different, although there is no clear cut-off point across the range of other populations.

Medium dispersal capabilities are also often a requirement for forming ‘metapopulations’. In this population arrangement, several semi-independent populations are present within the geographic range of the species. Each of these are subject to their own local environmental pressures and demographic dynamics, and because of this may go locally extinct at any given time. However, dispersal connections between many of these populations leads to recolonization and gene flow patterns, allowing for extinction-dispersal dynamics to sustain the overall metapopulation. Generally, this would require greater levels of dispersal than those typically found within metapopulation species, as individuals must traverse uninhabitable regions relatively frequently to recolonise locally extinct habitat.

Metapopulation structure.jpg
An example of metapopulation dynamics. Different subpopulations (lettered circles) are connected via dispersal (arrows). These different subpopulations can be different sizes and are mostly independent of one another, meaning that a single subpopulation can go locally extinct (the red X) without collapsing the entire system. The different dispersal pathways mean that one population can recolonise extinct habitat and essentially ‘rebirth’ other subpopulations (the green arrows).

Weakly dispersing species

At the far opposite end of the dispersal ability spectrum, we have low dispersal species. These are often localised, endemic species that for various reasons might be unable to travel very far at all; for some, they may spend their entire adult life in a sedentary form. The lack of dispersal lends to very strong levels of population structure, and individual populations often accumulate genetic differences relatively quickly due to genetic drift or local adaptation.

Species with low dispersal capabilities are often at risk of local extinction and are unable to easily recolonise these habitats after the event has ended. Their movement is often restricted to rare environmental events such as flooding that carry individuals long distances despite their physiological limitations. Because of this, low dispersal species are often at greater risk of total extinction and extinction vertices than their higher dispersing counterparts.

Accounting for dispersal in population genetics

Incorporating biological and physiological aspects of our study taxa is important for interpreting the evolutionary context of species. Dispersal ability is but one of many characteristics that can influence the ability of species to respond to selective pressures, and the context in which this natural selection occurs. Thus, understanding all aspects of an organism is important in building the full picture of their evolution and future prospects.

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.

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.

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.

Fantastic Genes and Where to Find Them

The genetics of adaptation

Adaptation and evolution by natural selection remains one of the most significant research questions in many disciplines of biology, and this is undoubtedly true for molecular ecology. While traditional evolutionary studies have been based on the physiological aspects of organisms and how this relates to their evolution, such as how these traits improve their fitness, the genetic component of adaptation is still somewhat elusive for many species and traits.

Hunting for adaptive genes in the genome

We’ve previously looked at the two main categories of genetic variation: neutral and adaptive. Although we’ve focused predominantly on the neutral components of the genome, and the types of questions about demographic history, geographic influences and the effect of genetic drift, they cannot tell us (directly) about the process of adaptation and natural selective changes in species. To look at this area, we’d have to focus on adaptive variation instead; that is, genes (or other related genetic markers) which directly influence the ability of a species to adapt and evolve. These are directly under natural selection, either positively (‘selected for’) or negatively (‘selected against’).

Given how complex organisms, the environment and genomes can be, it can be difficult to determine exactly what is a real (i.e. strong) selective pressure, how this is influenced by the physical characteristics of the organism (the ‘phenotype’) and which genes are fundamental to the process (the ‘genotype’). Even determining the relevant genes can be difficult; how do we find the needle-like adaptive genes in a genomic haystack?

Magnifying glass figure
If only it were this easy.

There’s a variety of different methods we can use to find adaptive genetic variation, each with particular drawbacks and strengths. Many of these are based on tests of the frequency of alleles, rather than on the exact genetic changes themselves; adaptation works more often by favouring one variant over another rather than completely removing the less-adaptive variant (this would be called ‘fixation’). So measuring the frequency of different alleles is a central component of many analyses.

FST outlier tests

One of the most classical examples is called an ‘FST outlier test’. This can be a bit complicated without understanding what FST is actually measures: in short terms, it’s a statistical measure of ‘population differentiation due to genetic structure’. The FST value of one particular population can determine how genetically similar it is to another. An FST value of 1 implies that the two populations are as genetically different as they could possibly be, whilst an FST value of 0 implies that they are genetically identical populations.

Generally, FST reflects neutral genetic structure: it gives a background of how, on average, different are two populations. However, if we know what the average amount of genetic differentiation should be for a neutral DNA marker, then we would predict that adaptive markers are significantly different. This is because a gene under selection should be more directly pushed towards or away from one variant (allele) than another, and much more strongly than the neutral variation would predict. Thus, the alleles that are way more or less frequent than the average pattern we might assume are under selection. This is the basis of the FST outlier test; by comparing two or more populations (using FST), and looking at the distribution of allele frequencies, we can pick out a few alleles that vary from the average pattern and suggest that they are under selection (i.e. are adaptive).

There are a few significant drawbacks for FST outlier tests. One of the most major ones is that genetic drift can also produce a large number of outliers; in a small population, for example, one allele might be fixed (has a frequency of 1, with no alternative allele in the population) simply because there is not enough diversity or population size to sustain more alleles. Even if this particular allele was extremely detrimental, it’d still appear to be favoured by natural selection just because of drift.

Drift leading to outliers diagram
An example of genetic drift leading to outliers, featuring our friends the cat population. Top row: Two cat populations, one small (left; n = 5) and one large (middle, n = 12) show little genetic differentiation between them (right; each triangle represents a single gene or locus; the ‘colour’ gene is marked in green). The average (‘neutral’) pattern of differentiation is shown by the dashed line. Much like in our original example, one cat in the small population is horrifically struck by lightning and dies (RIP again). Now when we compare the frequency of the alleles of the two populations (bottom), we see that (because a green cat died), the ‘colour’ locus has shifted away from the general trend (right) and is now an outlier. Thus, genetic drift in the ‘colour’ gene gives the illusion of a selective loci (even though natural selection didn’t cause the change, since colour does not relate to how likely a cat is to be struck by lightning).

Secondly, the cut-off for a ‘significant’ vs. ‘relatively different but possibly not under selection’ can be a bit arbitrary; some genes that are under weak selection can go undetected. Furthermore, recent studies have shown a growing appreciation for polygenic adaptation, where tiny changes in allele frequencies of many different genes combine together to cause strong evolutionary changes. For example, despite the clear heritable nature of height (tall people often have tall children), there is no clear ‘height’ gene: instead, it appears that hundreds of genes are potentially very minor height contributors.

Polygenic height figure final
In this example, we have one tall parent (top) who produces two offspring; one who is tall (left) and one who isn’t (right). In order to understand what genetic factors are contributing to their height differences, we compare their genetics (right; each dot represents a single locus). Although there aren’t any particular loci that look massively different between the two, the cumulative effect of tiny differences (the green triangles) together make one person taller than the other. There are no clear outliers, but many (poly) different genes (genic) acting together.

Genotype-environment associations

To overcome these biases, sometimes we might take a more methodological approach called ‘genotype-environment association’. This analysis differs in that we select what we think our selective pressures are: often environmental characteristics such as rainfall, temperature, habitat type or altitude. We then take two types of measures per individual organism: the genotype, through DNA sequencing, and the relevant environmental values for that organisms’ location. We repeat this over the full distribution of the species, taking a good number of samples per population and making sure we capture the full variation in the environment. Then we perform a correlation-type analysis, which seeks to see if there’s a connection or trend between any particular alleles and any environmental variables. The most relevant variables are often pulled out of the environmental dataset and focused on to reduce noise in the data.

The main benefit of GEA over FST outlier tests is that it’s unlikely to be as strongly influenced by genetic drift. Unless (coincidentally) populations are drifting at the same genes in the same pattern as the environment, the analysis is unlikely to falsely pick it up. However, it can still be confounded by neutral population structure; if one population randomly has a lot of unique alleles or variation, and also occurs in a somewhat unique environment, it can bias the correlation. Furthermore, GEA is limited by the accuracy and relevance of the environmental variables chosen; if we pick only a few, or miss the most important ones for the species, we won’t be able to detect a large number of very relevant (and likely very selective) genes. This is a universal problem in model-based approaches and not just limited to GEA analysis.

New spells to find adaptive genes?

It seems likely that with increasing datasets and better analytical platforms, many more types of analysis will be developed to delve deeper into the adaptive aspects of the genome. With whole-genome sequencing starting to become a reality for non-model species, better annotation of current genomes and a steadily increasing database of functional genes, the ability of researchers to investigate evolution and adaptation at the genomic level is also increasing.